Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Whitney Stakes a key Classic prep race

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The prep season for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup World Championships is in full swing, and this Saturday, Aug. 3, one of the most prestigious races for older dirt horses in North America, the Grade 1, $1 million Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, will bring together some of the leading contenders for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup, which will be held for the 36th time, is scheduled for Nov. 1-2 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.

The Whitney Stakes is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series Presented by America’s Best Racing “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Nov. 2 Classic, with the Whitney winner earning an automatic spot in the starting gate. The Whitney will be featured in NBC Sports’ live broadcast on-site from Saratoga as part of its “Win and You’re In” series of telecasts presented America’s Best Racing. The broadcast will air on NBCSN from 5 – 6 p.m. ET. For more information, click here.

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, GalloretteTom FoolKelso (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 been consistently 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 non-threatening 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. The 24-year-old has been a cornerstone stallion for Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs in Kentucky ever since.

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.

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.

Two summers ago, Gun Runner defeated Keen Ice by a comfortable 5 ¼ lengths in the Whitney, the second in what turned out to be five consecutive Grade 1 wins to close out his career. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Candy Ride went on to take the Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Saratoga – the Spa’s other elite race in the older male handicap division – and then win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar and the Pegasus World Cup Championship before retiring to co-owner Three Chimneys Farm’s stallion barn in Kentucky. The 2017 Horse of the Year is an almost sure bet to be yet another Whitney winner to eventually earn a spot in racing’s Hall of Fame.

The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series continues on NBC Sports with the Whitney Stakes from Saratoga Springs on August 3. Coverage begins at 5 p.m. on NBCSN.