Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Three 'Win and You're In' Races Headline Holiday Weekend

Musical Romance won the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Churchill Downs and was honored champion female sprinter at the Eclipse Awards several weeks later. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The road to the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships is in full swing as the calendar turns to July, and focus over the Independence Day holiday weekend shifts from Louisville, Ky., to New York’s Long Island and South Florida for three prep races that are part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series.

For 2021, the 1 ¼-mile Grade 2 Suburban Stakes July 3 at Belmont Park has been added to the Challenge Series as a qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic. There are “Win and You’re In” races this weekend for the two sprint divisions as well – the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Stakes on July 3 at Gulfstream Park, which offers the winner a starting-gate spot to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint; and the Grade 2 John A. Nerud Stakes on July 4 at Belmont, which is a Challenge Series qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Last weekend, two horses at or near the top of their respective divisions won Challenge Series races in dominant fashion under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs. Maxfield won the Stephen Foster Stakes, his seventh victory in eight career starts, by a widening 3 ¼ lengths and secured a spot in the Longines Classic. Earlier on the June 26 card, Letruksa romped by 5 ¾ lengths in the Fleur de Lis Stakes, a qualifier for the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff, just three weeks after a similarly impressive score in the Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont. She had already gained a spot in the Longines Distaff with the Ogden Phipps win.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup has the potential to be one of the most exciting in the event’s history, as racing fans return to tracks around North America following a year-plus absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be held at Del Mar for the second time on Nov. 5-6, 2021.

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.

The Suburban Stakes and the John A. Nerud Stakes will be broadast on NBC Sports (the Suburban will air on NBC and the John A. Nerud on NBCSN), while the Princess Rooney Stakes will be shown live on TVG.

Here’s some background on the the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap over the July 4 holiday weekend as well as other graded stakes that have had an impact on the World Championships:

Suburban Stakes

The Suburban has a rich history dating back to 1884, and is a worthy addition to the Challenge Series. During the Breeders’ Cup era, several of its winners have excelled on the World Championships stage. Hall of Famer Easy Goer, second to Sunday Silence in a 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic worthy of its name, finished his legendary career with a win in the 1990 Suburban.

In 1997, Skip Away finished first in both the Suburban and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, dominating the latter race by six lengths at Hollywood Park. His Classic score was the second in a nine-race winning streak that lasted until September 1998, when he finished third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Skip Away then finished sixth in his bid for a Classic repeat at Churchill Downs but was still voted Horse of the Year for ’98. He entered the Hall of Fame in 2004.

In 2001, Albert the Great won the 2001 Suburban and finished third that fall at Belmont Park in the Classic, where Tiznow tallied a repeat victory in one of the first major sporting events after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (Albert the Great also finished fourth in the 2000 Classic won by Tiznow). And in 2003, eventual Horse of the Year Mineshaft won the Suburban by 2 ¼ lengths but was retired due to ankle chips that October and missed the Classic at Santa Anita Park. The runner-up to Mineshaft in the ’03 Suburban, Volponi, had scored an improbable 43.50-1 upset by 6 1/2 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Classic several months before.

In 2006, future Hall of Famer Invasor took both the Suburban and the Breeders' Cup Classic during an undefeated 4-for-4 U.S. campaign after his lone defeat in that year's S & M al Naboodah Group United Arab Emirates Derby. The Argentine-bred, Uruguay-based import romped by 4 ¼ lengths in the Suburban in July and took the Classic that November at Churchill Downs by a length over Preakness, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Bernardini. He went on to win two more starts in early 2007, capped by Dubai World Cup, for owner Shadwell Stable and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin before retiring.

More recently, Mucho Macho Man won the 2012 Suburban, finished second behind Fort Larned in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, and a year later won the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic in a heart-pounder over Will Take Charge. Effinex, winner of the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Suburban, was runner-up in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic to American Pharoah and seventh behind Arrogate in the 2016 Classic.

Keen Ice, whose claim to fame will always be upsetting American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, won the 2017 Suburban in another upset, this time over Shaman Ghost. The son of Curlin, who had finished fourth in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic and third in the 2016 Classic, was forced to miss the 2017 Classic due to injury and was retired to Calumet Farm shortly before the World Championships.

Tacitus, winner of last year’s Suburban, finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. This year’s renewal on Saturday is expected to draw Godolphin’s Mystic Guide, impressive winner of the Dubai World Cup in March who’ll be making his first start since taking that trip overseas.

Princess Rooney Stakes

The Princess Rooney Stakes dates back to 1985 and thus has a longer history than the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, which was first held in 2007. It is named after Paula Tucker’s 1984 champion older female Princess Rooney. That eventual Hall of Famer began her career with four consecutive wins at South Florida's Calder Race Course in 1982 and 10 wins in a row overall, and ended it by winning the inaugural 1984 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park by a widening seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye.

During its first two decades, the Princess Rooney was won by such top-class racemares as Chaposa Springs, Hurricane Bertie, Dream Supreme, and Gold Mover, who won the race in both 2002 and 2003. Miraculous Miss, who finished second in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint in 2007, was runner-up in the ’08 Princess Rooney, and the latter race has had an impact on the Breeders’ Cup ever since. In 2010, Dubai Majesty finished third in the Princess Rooney but then won three out of her remaining four starts, culminating in the Filly and Mare Sprint, to claim the Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter (that divisional honor also was first awarded in 2007).

One year later, Calder mainstay Musical Romance was edged by Sassy Image in the Princess Rooney; the daughter of Concorde’s Tune, trained and co-owned by Bill Kaplan, went on to win the Filly and Mare Sprint and earn an Eclipse Award. Musical Romance then won the Princess Rooney in 2012. 

Florida-bred Stormy Embrace won back-to-back editions of the Princess Rooney in 2018 and 2019 but was not a factor in her only try in the Filly and Mare Sprint, finishing 11th in '18. The Princess Rooney was not held last year due to the coronavirus pandemic but is back on the Challenge Series schedule this year. Multiple Grade 1 winner Ce Ce is expected to ship in from her base in California as the headliner in Saturday's race. She finished fifth in the Longines Distaff at Keeneland last fall.

John A. Nerud Stakes

The John A. Nerud Stakes was previously named the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes, and in 2014 took the place of the James Marvin Stakes, which was run at Saratoga Race Course from 2008-2013, on NYRA’s stakes calendar. The race became a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier in 2017, and was renamed for 2019 to honor the late Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud, one of the most influential figures in the Thoroughbred industry during the 20th Century. 

The best horse to run during the race’s era as the James Marvin probably was 2011 winner Jackson Bend. That Florida-bred millionaire ran third in the Preakness Stakes in 2010, won the James Marvin on Saratoga’s opening day in 2011, and would thrive over the next several months in one-turn races, running third in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint.  

In 2014, Clearly Now won the Belmont Sprint Championship, and runner-up Palace and third place-finisher Salutos Amigos would go on to run sixth and seventh in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Private Zone, third in the ’14 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, became one of the best sprinters in the country over the next year, winning four graded stakes, including two Grade 1s, and romping in the 2015 Belmont Sprint Championship by 3 ¼ lengths over Clearly Now. He went on to finish three-quarters of a length behind champion Runhappy in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland.

Private Zone finished fourth in the 2016 Belmont Sprint Championship behind another top-class sprinter, A. P. Indian. A.P. Indian in turn checked in fourth in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint but was elevated to third when runner-up Masochistic was disqualified for a medication violation weeks later.

In its first year as a Challenge Series "Win and You're In" race, the 2017 Belmont Sprint Championship drew a high-class, competitive field, and 7-5 favorite Mind Your Biscuits proved much the best, defeating Awesome Slew by 3 ½ lengths. Mind Your Biscuits had previously finished second in the aforementioned 2016 Sprint (moved up from third via DQ), and after his Belmont Sprint score he would train on to finish third in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Del Mar and then continue to perform well until retiring in fall 2018. 

The workmanlike Whitmore, still going strong this year at age 8, just missed in the 2018 Belmont Sprint Championship, losing by a neck to Limousine Liberal. He finished second in that fall's Breeders' Cup Sprint and third in the 2019 Sprint, and then last fall turned in a career-best performance in the Sprint at Keeneland, winning by 3 ¼ lengths and securing the 2020 Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter. Whitmore is not listed as a probable for Sunday’s John A. Nerud, which was not held last year due to the pandemic. Firenze Fire, an impressive 7-for-10 at Belmont in his career, headlines the horses scheduled to compete as the Nerud returns to the Challenge Series schedule.

Other weekend stakes:

The six-furlong Grade 3 Smile Sprint Stakes was part of Calder Race Course’s marquee “Summit of Speed” racecard until 2014. After a one-year hiatus, the Smile Sprint, the Princess Rooney Handicap and the rest of the “Summit” races were moved to Gulfstream Park.

A significant Smile Sprint-Breeders’ Cup connection occurred in 2002, when D. Wayne Lukas’ Orientate won the Smile Sprint at Calder under Mike Smith and then took the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Arlington International Racecourse. The Breeders’ Cup win was Orientate’s fifth straight stakes score, and his career finale. He was honored as 2002 champion sprinter by Eclipse Award voters.

The second dual winner came in 2010, when Harold Queen’s homebred Big Drama took both the Smile Sprint and then the Breeders' Cup Sprint, which was held at Churchill Downs. Not surprisingly, the Florida-bred son of Montbrook received the Eclipse Award as 2010 champion sprinter. 

More recently, Trinniberg, 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and champion sprinter, finished second in the ’13 Smile Sprint, and in 2015, Favorite Tale won the first running of the Smile Sprint at Gulfstream Park and then finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint behind champion Runhappy and the aforementioned Private Zone.

In 2017, Imperial Hint romped in the Smile Sprint by 4 ¾ lengths to earn a Breeders’ Cup berth, and he validated that performance with a sharp runner-up effort in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, finishing a length behind Roy H. He also finished third in the 2018 Sprint, behind repeat winner Roy H and Whitmore.

Saturday’s Grade 3 Delaware Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at Delaware Park has been won by notables such as Blind Luck in 2010 (who would then finish second to Unrivaled Belle in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic – as the Distaff was then named – that fall), Grace Hall in 2014 (later fourth in that year’s Ladies Classic), and Jaywalk in 2019 (who had won the Juvenile Fillies and been awarded champion juvenile filly honors the fall before).

The Grade 2 Great Lady M Stakes held Monday, July 5 at Los Alamitos has a recent connection to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, as Finest City won both races in 2016. However, the Great Lady M was held in April of that year rather than in midsummer. Finest City ran again in the Great Lady M Stakes the summer after her win in the World Championships and finished third. Marley’s Freedom won the Great Lady M in 2018, finished a close fourth in the Filly and Mare Sprint, and won the Great Lady M again in 2019 in what turned out to be her final race. And the Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby, a key midsummer 3-year-old test rescheduled for Sunday, has been won in recent years by such notables as Accelerate in 2016 (two years before he’d take the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs), West Coast in 2017 (prior to his third-place Classic run that year) and Game Winner in 2019 (a year after he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile). The race was previously named the Swaps Stakes and run at Hollywood Park until that historic track was closed in 2013 and the land was redeveloped to serve as the site for the NFL’s SoFi Stadium.

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