Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Del Mar Takes the Spotlight with Two ‘Win and You’re In’ Preps

Beholder won the 2015 Clement Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar, one of eleven Grade 1 wins in a stellar career that also saw her win three Breeders’ Cup races. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After a one-week break, the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships resumes this weekend in North America, with two Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” preps held at the seaside southern California track where the 38th renewal of the event will occur this November. 

All eyes will be focused on picturesque Del Mar Saturday evening, where the winner of the Bing Crosby Stakes gets an automatic berth to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. On Sunday, the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes is a Challenge Series prep for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Both the Sprint and the Longines Distaff are slated for Saturday, Nov. 6, as highlights of the second day of Breeders' Cup events at Del Mar.

Del Mar’s two Challenge Series races will be broadcast live on TVG. For more information about television, online streaming, and radio coverage of this week in horse racing, click here.

In addition to the two U.S. races, one other “Win and You’re In” qualifier takes place Wednesday, July 28, in England. The Qatar Sussex Stakes was added to the Challenge Series in 2015, offering an automatic berth in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile to the winner. The one-mile turf race is held at one of England’s most exquisite racecourses, Goodwood in West Sussex, as part of its annual summer “Glorious Goodwood” meet.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $31 million in purse money and awards, and the selection of starters in each race is determined in part by a points system for graded stakes and the selection criteria of a panel of experts. However, there is one way for an owner to bypass the secondary criteria and secure a spot for their horse in a Breeders’ Cup race, and that is by winning a stakes race in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.

Here’s some background on the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap this week as well as some other important races that will have an influence on the World Championships:

Bing Crosby Stakes

The six-furlong Bing Crosby Stakes, named after the Del Mar co-founder and Hollywood legend, was first run in 1946. During the 1980s, the race did not have much of an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Sprint as East Coast sprinters were dominant at the World Championships. That changed in 1992, when Thirty Slews won the Bing Crosby in August and, two races later, captured the Sprint at Gulfstream Park over the filly Meafara, in the process giving an up-and-coming trainer named Bob Baffert his first Breeders’ Cup win.

Four years later, Lit de Justice pulled off the Bing Crosby-Breeders’ Cup Sprint double as well, taking the latter race at Woodbine. With that win, Jenine Sahadi became the first female trainer to score a Breeders’ Cup victory – and she would pick up another Sprint trophy one year later with Elmhurst.

The great sprinter Kona Gold was omnipresent on the national scene for a six-year stretch spanning the turn of the century. Trained and co-owned by Bruce Headley, the gelding finished third in the ’98 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, second a year later, and then won the 2000 renewal at Churchill Downs. That year, he also won his first of two consecutive Bing Crosbys, and he was granted champion sprinter honors at the Eclipse Awards.

In 2004, Bing Crosby winner Kela finished second to champion Speightstown in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and ’08 and ’10 Bing Crosby winners Street Boss and Smiling Tiger each finished third in their Breeders’ Cup tries. In 2011, Amazombie edged Force Freeze by a neck to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs, and the next year took the Bing Crosby, with Mike Smith aboard for both wins. Another top-flight Bing Crosby runner made his impact in a different Breeders’ Cup event, as Goldencents finished second in both the ’13 and ’14 Bing Crosbys but took bigger prizes each fall, winning the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in back-to-back years.

In 2017, the Bing Crosby was notable for a rough start to the race, when favored Drefong – the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner in 2016 – tossed Mike Smith. Roy H, runner-up to Ransom the Moon in the Bing Crosby, came back to win a Grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita Park and then returned to Del Mar to take the Sprint by a length over Imperial Hint (Ransom the Moon finished fifth, and Drefong sixth). Roy H received the Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter for 2017.

Incredibly, the 2018 Bing Crosby scenario played out exactly the same with regards to the top two finishers. Ransom the Moon defeated favored Roy H by 2 ¼ lengths at Del Mar, but Roy H took the bigger prize in the fall, repeating in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs.

Clement L. Hirsch Stakes

Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch Stakes was conjoined with the Breeders’ Cup Distaff from the very start. Paula Tucker’s Princess Rooney, one of the dominant racemares of her era, won what was then named the Chula Vista Handicap by 2 ½ lengths as the second of five consecutive victories to close out her career. Her finale came in the inaugural World Championships at Hollywood Park, where she romped by seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye. Princess Rooney was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.

During the rest of the 1980s, several Chula Vista/Clement Hirsch winners performed respectably in the Distaff, and in 1990 another eventual Hall of Famer achieved the double. Bayakoa, who won the 1989 Distaff at Gulfstream Park, won the Chula Vista two races before taking her second Distaff in a row, this time at Belmont. She was honored as champion older female by Eclipse Award voters in both ’89 and ’90.

Sid Craig’s Paseana won the ’92 Distaff, finished second in ’93, and then won the ’94 Chula Vista. Del Mar’s race was renamed after Clement L. Hirsch, one of the track’s original directors, in 1999, and in 2002-’03, Azeri emerged to take back-to-back runnings of the race during the midst of an incredible four-year run that saw her win 17 of 24 races and receive four Eclipse Awards, including 2002 Horse of the Year. She won the ’02 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Arlington Park by five lengths.

As dominant as Azeri was during her early 2000s heyday, the magnificent Zenyatta was a cut above from 2008-’10. She won three consecutive editions of the Clement Hirsch from 2008 to 2010 over what was, at the time, a synthetic main track at Del Mar, and also captured the ’08 Distaff (then named the Ladies’ Classic) and ’09 Classic at Santa Anita, which also featured an artificial-surface main track. As all contemporary racing fans know, Zenyatta’s quest for a perfect 20-win career record came to a heartbreaking end in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs when she lost to Blame, but her legion of fans, a sizeable number of them based in Southern California, will never forget her brilliance.

Since Zenyatta’s reign, the Clement L. Hirsch has remained a key Distaff prep, with winners such as Include Me Out (third in the ’12 Distaff) and Iotapa (third in the ’14 Distaff) performing respectably in the World Championships. Beholder, arguably the best racemare in North America since Zenyatta and already winner of the ’13 Distaff, won the 2015 Clement Hirsch prior to her amazing romp in the TVG Pacific Classic. Those races, and a win in the Zenyatta Stakes, set B. Wayne Hughes’ superstar up for a showdown with American Pharoah in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. Unfortunately, Beholder had to miss the race due to illness, which disheartened racing fans across America but in retrospect set the stage for an incredible 2016.

In 2016, Beholder hooked up with Stellar Wind, who finished a close second in the 2015 Longines Distaff, in the Clement L. Hirsch for one of the summer’s most exciting races. Stellar Wind gamely outdueled Beholder to win by a half-length, and, as it turned out, the Clement Hirsch served as a prelude to a Longines Distaff for the ages when the two met again at Santa Anita, joined by unbeaten 3-year-old filly Songbird.

Beholder closed out her career with a thrilling nose win over Songbird, and while Stellar Wind was not at her best that day, the John Sadler-trained mare came back strong in 2017 to win a three consecutive Grade 1 stakes, including the Clement Hirsch by a neck over Vale Dori. Stellar Wind failed to fire in the Longines Distaff that November at Del Mar, finishing eighth, and days later sold for $6 million to Coolmore at the Keeneland November breeding stock auction. She raced once more in the 2018 Pegasus World Cup Invitational, finishing sixth, and has since commenced her breeding career in Ireland.

Hard-trying Ollie’s Candy won the 2019 Clement Hirsch and finished second to Fighting Mad last year; she also competed in the Longines Distaff both years and finished fourth in 2019.

Qatar Sussex Stakes

Up until 2018, the Qatar Sussex Stakes did not send a winner to the Breeders’ Cup since it became a "Win and You're In" race in 2015, but several winners from earlier years have made an impact on the World Championships. They include Barathea, second in the 1994 Sussex, who won that year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs, and 2000 Sussex winner Giant’s Causeway, aka “the Iron Horse,” who finished a valiant second to Tiznow in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic before becoming one of the most influential North American sires so far this century until his passing in 2018.

In 2008, Sussex 1-2 finishers Henrythenavigator and Raven’s Pass reversed those positions in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Santa Anita Park’s synthetic main track. That race may, over time, serve as a hallmark reminder of a brief, now almost forgotten, era in North American racing when artificial-surface main tracks seemed to be the wave of the future.

The 2017 Sussex winner, the gelding Here Comes When, did not make the transatlantic trip to Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup, but heavily-favored runner-up Ribchester did. He finished fifth behind World Approval in the Mile as the 7-2 second betting choice. 

In 2018, Lightning Spear won the Sussex by 1 ½ lengths over Juddmonte Farms’ Expert Eye. Both horses made the trip to Louisville for the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and at Churchill Downs it was Expert Eye who brought his best form overseas, rallying late under Frankie Dettori to defeat Catapult by a half-length (Lightning Spear faded in early stretch to finish seventh).

The 2019 Sussex Stakes runner-up, Circus Maximus, finished fourth in the TVG Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita and last year Circus Maximus came back to finished second in the Sussex once more, this time by three quarters of a length to Mohaather. The son of Galileo then tried the Breeders’ Cup Mile again at Keeneland and nearly pulled off a 11.30-1 upset, only to be surpassed in the last jump by the longest shot in the 14-horse field. Order of Australia won the Mile by a neck at 73.20-1 odds for owners Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, Derrick Smith and Anne O’Brien along with trainer Aidan O’Brien. Tabor, Magnier, and Smith also owned Circus Maximus with Flaxman Holdings, with O’Brien training.

Other weekend stakes:

Saratoga’s Jim Dandy Stakes for 3-year-olds is the traditional prep for the Runhappy Travers Stakes, but on occasion its winners have gone on to Breeders’ Cup success (1996 winner Louis Quatorze was a nose behind Alphabet Soup in that year’s Classic; ’97 winner Awesome Again won the ’98 Classic; and ’02, ’05, and ’06 winners Medaglia d’Oro, Flower Alley, and Bernardini, respectively, all finished second in the Classic later in their sophomore seasons). In 2013, late-blooming 3-year-old Will Take Charge finished second in the Jim Dandy before winning the Travers Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby and then coming up a nose short to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Jesus’ Team, third in last year’s Jim Dandy, subsequently finished second behind Knicks Go in the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile, and 2019 Jim Dandy runner-up Tacitus and third-place Global Campaign finished fourth and third, respectively, a year later in the 2020 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic behind Authentic.

Two sprint stakes this weekend with recent influence on the Breeders’ Cup are the Amsterdam Stakes for 3-year-olds at Saratoga, won in 2011 by eventual Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile victor Caleb’s Posse and in 2016 by Mind Your Biscuits, who was runner-up in that year's Breeders’ Cup Sprint and third in the 2017 Sprint; and the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga, whose past winners include ’02 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Orientate and ’04 Sprint winner Speightstown. Fan favorite Imperial Hint won back-to-back Vanderbilts in 2018 and 2019; he also finished second in the 2017 Sprint and third in the 2018 Sprint, both times to the aforementioned Roy H. In last year’s Vanderbilt, another fan favorite, the workmanlike Whitmore, came up short with his customary late rally and finished second to pacesetting Volatile. The gelding would reach his career peak three and a half months and three starts later, taking the Sprint at Keeneland by 3 ¼ lengths en route to champion male sprinter honors.

For turf runners, the Bowling Green Stakes at the Spa has also crossed over with the Breeders' Cup, starting when eventual ’87 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf winner and champion Theatrical won the race in 1987 when it was held at Belmont Park. Champion and two-time Longines Turf runner-up Flintshire won the Bowling Green in 2016, and in last year's Bowling Green, Channel Maker was elevated to third via disqualification. After two subsequent wins in Grade 1 stakes the Bill Mott trainee checked in a very good third in the Longines Turf at Keeneland. He was voted champion turf male at the Eclipse Awards.

Lastly, at Monmouth Park, the Monmouth Oaks has been won in years past by such luminaries as Life’s Magic (won the 1984 edition on the Jersey Shore, finished second to Princess Rooney in the inaugural Distaff and won it a year later) and Silverbulletday (won the 1998 Juvenile Fillies and the 1999 Monmouth Oaks). In 2000 and 2001, two 3-year-old fillies won both the Monmouth Oaks and the Distaff: Spain, who upset the Distaff field at odds of 55.90-1 at Churchill Downs, and Unbridled Elaine, who posted a less robust 12.30-1 upset when she defeated Spain by a head in the Distaff at Belmont Park a year later. 

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