The Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships resumes this weekend, highlighted by a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” prep held at one of the North America's finest venues and another one at a boutique summer meet overseas.
All eyes will be focused on Del Mar Saturday evening, where the winner of the Bing Crosby Stakes gets an automatic berth to the Qatar Racing Breeders’ Cup Sprint. That Challenge Series race will be broadcast live on TVG.
In addition to the Bing Crosby, one other “Win and You’re In” qualifier takes place Wednesday, July 27, 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.
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:
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 1998 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 earned 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.
Last year, the World Championships were held at Del Mar a little over three months after the Bing Crosby. Crack West Coast sprinter Dr. Schivel rolled through the stretch to get up and win the Bing Crosby by a neck in one of 2021’s most exciting races, and then took the Santa Anita Sprint Championship in October to lead up to the Qatar Racing Sprint. He was sent off as the second post-time betting choice in the Sprint at 4.30-1 behind heavy favorite Jackie’s Warrior. Dr. Schivel nearly rewarded his backers with a nice payout as he assumed command in midstretch and fought valiantly with deep closer Aloha West in the final strides, only to lose by a nose in another thrilling finish.
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 in 2020 Circus Maximus came back to finish 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 the 2020 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. Essential Quality, winner of the 2021 Jim Dandy and eventual champion 3-year-old male, checked in a solid third behind Knicks Go in the Longines Classic at Del Mar.
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 the 2020 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. Whitmore trained on to finish third in the 2021 Vanderbilt, his second-to-last start before retiring.
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 the 2020 Bowling Green, Channel Maker was elevated to third via disqualification, giving him another on-the-board finish along with his dead-heat Bowling Green win in 2018. After two subsequent wins in Grade 1 stakes the Bill Mott trainee checked in a very good third in the 2020 Longines Turf at Keeneland. He was voted champion turf male at the Eclipse Awards.
At Del Mar, the San Diego Handicap has been won by several accomplished and famous horses through the years (and has had also-rans such as Breeders' Cup winners Pleasantly Perfect and Bayakoa), and through the years it has become an increasingly important race on the road to the Breeders’ Cup as the main prep for the TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar near the end of its summer meet.
The first San Diego winner to make noise at the World Championships came early. Skywalker, a son of Relaunch based in California, won the San Diego in summer 1986 and three starts later at Santa Anita upset the Classic at odds of 10.10-1 under Laffit Pincay Jr., defeating the top two betting choices, Turkoman and Precisionist.
Jump ahead 24 years, and Dakota Phone took the 2010 San Diego and then won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs in a 37.70-1 upset three starts later (also of note: Taste of Paradise, winner of the ’03 San Diego, nearly won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint two years later, losing by a head).
Rail Trip won the San Diego in 2012 and finished second in the Dirt Mile, and the race's stature has continued to grow larger in recent years. The great California Chrome won the San Diego Handicap in 2016 prior to his five-length runaway in the Pacific Classic, and he was favored in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that year only to lose to another superstar, Arrogate. In 2017, Accelerate upset Arrogate in the San Diego but finished ninth in the Dirt Mile that fall and did not reach champion-level form until 2018, when he won five Grade 1 stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
The Eddie Read Stakes at Del Mar, a 1 1/8-mile turf test, has occasionally been won by horses with Breeders’ Cup credentials, most notably Kotashaan, a Richard Mandella-trained standout who captured both the Eddie Read and Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1993 and received Eclipse Awards as both champion turf male and Horse of the Year – the latter a rare accomplishment for a grass runner. Other notable Eddie Read winners include 2006’s Aragorn (second in that year’s BC Turf), dual 1995 and 1996 winner Fastness (second in the ’95 BC Mile), the aforementioned Catapult in 2018 (second in that fall’s BC Mile), and back-to-back winner United in 2020 and 2021 (another Mandella trainee who nearly upset eventual Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar in the 2019 Turf).
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.