Road to the 2022 Breeders' Cup: Whitney, Clement Hirsch Have Been Crucial Steppingstones

Gun Runner dominated his opponents in the 2017 Whitney Stakes en route to a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Horse of the Year honors, despite getting a shoe from another runner caught in his tail (see left). (Eclipse Sportswire)

The prep season for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup World Championships is in full swing, and this Saturday, Aug. 6, one of the most prestigious races for older dirt horses in North America, the $1 million, Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, will bring together some of the leading contenders for the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Whitney Stakes is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series Presented by America's Best Racing “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Nov. 5 Classic, with the Whitney winner earning an expenses-paid spot in the starting gate. For the opposite sex, Saturday’s $400,000, Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar is a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, also on Nov. 5. Both the Whitney and Clement Hirsch have served as key preps for their respective Breeders’ Cup races through the history of the World Championships.

The 39th Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be held for the third time at Keeneland on Nov. 4-5, 2022.

The Whitney will be broadcast on NBC during a show from 5-6 p.m. ET Saturday, while the Clement Hirsch will be shown on TVG.

Here’s some background on the Whitney, the Clement Hirsch, and other key races on the road to the Breeders’ Cup this weekend:

Whitney Stakes

The Whitney was first held in 1928 and is one of Saratoga’s seemingly endless group of historic stakes races, won by greats such as Discovery (three times), War Admiral, Gallorette, Tom Fool, Kelso (three times, one of those via disqualification), and Dr. Fager through the years. The race has also made its contributions to Saratoga’s reputation as “The Graveyard of Champions,” with one notable example being Onion’s defeat of Secretariat in 1973. It’s no surprise, then, that the Whitney has consistently been a key prep race in Breeders’ Cup history ever since the World Championships began in 1984. That year, Whitney winner Slew o’ Gold finished third in the inaugural Classic at Hollywood Park but was elevated to second when runner-up Gate Dancer was disqualified after lugging in and pushing Slew o’ Gold into winner Wild Again in a rough, but exciting finish. Slew o’ Gold was voted Horse of the Year in 1984 nevertheless and entered the Racing Hall of Fame in 1992.

In 1986, the filly Lady’s Secret put together a phenomenal campaign, winning 10 of 15 starts, including the Whitney in a 4 ½-length romp and later the Breeder’s Cup Distaff. She was voted Horse of the Year in 1986 and joined Slew o’ Gold in the 1992 Hall of Fame class. Another legendary filly, Personal Ensign, took down the 1988 Whitney for the 10th of her 13 career wins without a defeat, a career capped by a win in that year’s Distaff.

In 1989, Easy Goer entered the Whitney off of an eight-length romp in the Belmont Stakes over Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Sunday Silence, and at Saratoga he handled older horses with ease under Pat Day in a 4 ½-length win. The Ogden Phipps homebred would go on to win the Travers Stakes, Woodward Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup before a much-anticipated rematch against Sunday Silence in a thrilling renewal of the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, with Sunday Silence prevailing by a neck.

After a relatively quiet few years, in 1995 Whitney runner-up L’Carriere finished a nonthreatening second to the “unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable” Cigar in that fall’s Classic at Belmont Park. A year later, the great Serena’s Song finished second in the Whitney by a neck to Mahogany Hall and would go on to finish second in that year’s Distaff as well. And in 1997, Skip Away finished a distant third in the Whitney but soon reached peak form and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic before fashioning a Horse of the Year campaign in 1998.

That year, Awesome Again completed the first Whitney-Breeders’ Cup Classic double, winning the 1998 Whitney by three lengths under Pat Day (one of Day’s five wins in the race) and then the Classic by three-quarters of a length in a wild finish where he split horses late and surged to victory. He subsequently became a cornerstone stallion for Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs in Kentucky.

Another great racehorse turned standout sire, Medaglia d’Oro won the 2003 Whitney by turning the tables on Volponi, who had won the ’02 Classic by a stunning 6 ½ lengths at odds of 43.50-1. Medaglia d’Oro would run second again in the ’03 Classic, this time to Pleasantly Perfect. In 2004, Whitney winner Roses in May finished second to Ghostzapper in a Breeders’ Cup Classic that launched the latter into superstardom. 2005 Whitney runner-up Saint Liam would fare better in that fall’s World Championships, however, scoring by a length in the Classic and earning Horse of the Year honors. His vanquisher in the ’05 Whitney, the pure speed horse Commentator, defeated Saint Liam by a neck that year and won the Whitney again going gate-to-wire in 2008. 

One of the decade’s best tallied the second Whitney-Breeders’ Cup Classic double in 2006, as Invasor held off Sun King by a neck at the Spa and then defeated Bernardini in the Classic at Churchill Downs for Shadwell Stable and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The Argentine-bred never lost in the U.S. through five starts, and also won the 2007 Dubai World Cup. He was named 2006 Horse of the Year and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.

Blame wins the Whitney. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Four years later, another horse won the Whitney and the Breeders’ Cup Classic – and for racing fans, it’s the latter win that will forever be permanently etched into Thoroughbred racing lore. Blame had already established himself as one of the best older horses in training with a score in the Stephen Foster Handicap, and his close win over top-class Quality Road in the Whitney further enhanced his reputation. After coming in second to Haynesfield in the 2010 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Blame entered the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs as many people’s exacta filler behind defending Classic champ Zenyatta. Instead, Blame and Garrett Gomez took the lead in the stretch and somehow held off Zenyatta’s closing rush to win the Classic by a head and end the beloved racemare’s streak of 19 wins without a loss.

In 2012, Fort Larned took the same summer and fall route as Blame to the Breeders’ Cup – winning the Whitney, starting in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (finishing third), and then winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A year later, Mucho Macho Man finished third in the Whitney to Cross Traffic but won the Classic. And in 2015, Honor Code defeated eventual Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Liam’s Map by a neck in a thrilling Whitney before running third behind Horse of the Year American Pharoah in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Five summers ago, Gun Runner defeated Keen Ice by a comfortable 5 ¼ lengths in the Whitney, the second of what turned out to be five consecutive Grade 1 wins to close out his career. Gun Runner also earned some social media notoriety that day when somehow, a horseshoe lost by the Whitney pacesetter became entangled in his tail and he carried it the rest of the way, getting an unexpected (albeit small) weight handicap. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Candy Ride went on to take the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga – the Spa’s other elite race in the older male handicap division at that time – and then win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar and the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes before retiring to co-owner Three Chimneys Farm’s stallion barn in Kentucky. The 2017 Horse of the Year (who is off to an incedible start at stud) is an almost sure bet to be yet another Whitney winner to eventually earn a spot in racing’s Hall of Fame.

The 2019 Whitney winner, Bob Baffert-trained California invader McKinzie, subsequently finished second to Whitney third-place finisher Vino Rosso in the Breeders’ Cup Classic back at his home base of Santa Anita Park. The 2020 Whitney winner, Baffert-trained Improbable, also came in second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic three months later, finishing behind stablemate Authentic at Keeneland. And last year, the Whitney maintained its status as a proving ground for Breeders’ Cup glory, as Knicks Go crushed four accomplished opponents in a wire-to-wire, 4 ½-length runaway at the Spa and then, two starts later, defeated a stacked field in the Longines Classic at Del Mar by 2 ¼ lengths. Knicks Go concluded his career with a runner-up finish to Life Is Good earlier this year in the Pegasus World Cup, and shortly after that was awarded Horse of the Year honors for 2021. Life Is Good is scheduled to start in the 2022 Whitney on Saturday.

Clement L. Hirsch Stakes

Like the Whitney, Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch Stakes was conjoined with the Breeders’ Cup 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 in the Distaff 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 (see above), 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.

Other weekend races:

There are several other graded stakes on tap for this upcoming weekend that are not “Win and You’re In” qualifiers but have produced runners who have occasionally gone on to shine in the Breeders’ Cup. They include the Longines Test Stakes, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga. The Test has had a significant impact on the Breeders’ Cup as winners include the aforementioned Lady’s Secret (’85 Test, ’86 Distaff), Hall of Famer Go For Wand (’89 Juvenile Fillies, won the ’90 Test before tragically breaking down in the Distaff), and champion Indian Blessing (Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in ’07, Test in ’08).

Two recent Test Stakes winners have kept up that crossover momentum. 2019 victress Covfefe turned in one of the most memorable performances of that fall’s World Championships at Santa Anita when she won the Filly and Mare Sprint by a three-quarters of a length over Bellafina, and in 2021, Gamine also took the Test path to Breeders’ Cup glory, romping at Saratoga by seven lengths and setting a stakes record time of 1:20.83 and then nearly matching that at Keeneland with a 6 ¼-length runaway in the Filly and Mare Sprint. Both fillies received Eclipse Awards as champion female sprinter for their respective seasons. Covfefe also was honored as champion 3-year-old filly of 2019.

Another Saratoga race for 3-year-olds, the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes, has sent several high-class runners on to earn Breeders’ Cup distinction, including Artie Schiller (won the Hall of Fame Stakes in 2004 and the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2005), Courageous Cat (won the 2009 Hall of Fame, runner-up in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Mile), and Big Blue Kitten (won the 2011 Hall of Fame, third in the 2015 Longines Turf and champion turf male that year).

Perhaps the best of them all, Bricks and Mortar used the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes as his coming-out party in 2017, scoring his first graded stakes win by three-quarters of a length. The Chad Brown trainee had his momentum halted by injuries in the fall and was away for more than a year, but he returned with a vengeance in late 2018 to win seven races in a row all the way through the 2019 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita. He was voted Horse of the Year by Eclipse Award contributors and also was honored as champion turf male for 2019.

The 5 ½-furlong Troy Stakes Presented by Horse Racing Ireland, held this year on Friday at Saratoga, became a graded stakes for the first time in 2018. The race has been won by a trio of horses over the past decade that have also hit the board in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint: Green Mask (won the 2017 Troy and runner-up in 2016; also third in the 2015 Breeders’Cup Turf Sprint); Disco Partner (won 2016 Troy and third in 2018 and 2019; third in both the 2017 and 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints); and Leinster (won the 2019 Troy; third in the 2020 Turf Sprint). In addition, Bridgetown, runner-up in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, won the Troy in 2011 and 2012. 

This year's Glens Falls Stakes is set for Saturday at Saratoga on the Whitney undercard; runners in this race for fillies and mares 3 years old and up have on occasion gone on to run well in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, including Honey Ryder (second in 2007) and Keertana (third in 2010). Last year’s Glens Falls proved to be especially influential compared with years prior, though. Bill Mott-trained War Like Goddess had emerged as one of the best female long-distance turf runners of 2021 with a pair of graded stakes wins in the spring, and she came back after a break of more than three months to win the Glens Falls by a comfortable 3 ¼ lengths over Grade 3 winner My Sister Nat. War Like Goddess then picked up her first Grade 1 win in the Flower Bowl Stakes in September and trained up to the Maker’s Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar, where she left the gates as the 2.30-1 favorite in a highly competitive field.

War Like Goddess, as per her customary style, rallied furiously from off of the pace in the Filly and Mare Turf took a short lead in midstretch, but a couple of other fillies were rallying as well, and she finished third, beaten a length by Japanese invader Loves Only You. Coming in second, a half-length behind the winner and a half-length in front of War Like Goddess? My Sister Nat. War Like Goddess returned earlier this year with another Grade 3 win and is listed as a probable starter in Saturday's Glens Falls as she bids for a repeat.

A sprint race for 2-year-old fillies at Saratoga, Sunday's Adirondack Stakes at Saratoga served as the springboard for 2011 champion 2-year-old female My Miss Aurelia, who won that year's Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs.

And the La Jolla Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile turf race also set to run on Sunday Del Mar, produced a Breeders’ Cup Mile winner on a one-year delay back in 2003. Singletary scored by a half-length that year, and 14 months and seven starts later he pulled off a 16.50-1 upset in the Mile at Lone Star Park for the Little Red Feather Racing syndicate. More recently, Smooth Like Strait, winner of the 2020 La Jolla, ran a solid second behind European star Modern Games a year later in the 2021 FanDuel Mile Presented by PDJF.

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