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.

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.