Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Important Classic and Distaff preps star at Churchill on Saturday

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Last weekend marked the beginning of the summer season, which in Thoroughbred racing usually signals a transition in focus. In years past, the pursuit of the Triple Crown ended in early June and owners and trainers began targeting races that are part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, with the long-term goal of getting their best horses a spot in one of the 14 World Championship races.

This year, things are very different in the horse racing world as they are in nearly every other aspect of daily life, due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic. The Triple Crown has been pushed back to a 15-week span that started last Saturday, June 20, with the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and will extend through the first weekend in October. Meanwhile, the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series has been altered to accommodate race meet schedules but will still continue through mid-October in advance of the 37th World Championships at Keeneland on Nov. 6-7.

The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series highlights many of the sport’s elite domestic and international races, and, after several overseas races kicked off the series during the winter and spring, the domestic slate got underway on May 25, when Raging Bull won the Shoemaker Mile Stakes at Santa Anita Park and secured a spot in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile. On June 6 at Belmont ParkVekoma romped in the Runhappy Carter Handicap to earn a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and a week later, She’s a Julie secured a spot in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff with an upset win in the Ogden Phipps Stakes. Last Saturday on the Belmont Stakes undercard, Oleksandra punched her ticket to the Turf Sprint with a win in the Jaipur Stakes Presented by America’s Best Racing. Four other horses earned automatic berths to Breeders’ Cup races during the Royal Ascot meet held from June 16-20 in England.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $35 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.

On Saturday, June 27, Churchill Downs will hold two Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races among four graded stakes overall. The first is the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Stakes which brings together older fillies and mares in a qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff. That will be followed by the first domestic “Win and You’re In” prep race for the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Grade 2 Stephen Foster Stakes.

Both the Stephen Foster and the Fleur de Lis will be broadcast by NBC starting at 5 p.m. ET as part of the network’s “Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In” television schedule. Watch the Fleur de Lis Stakes and the Stephen Foster Stakes from Churchill Downs on Saturday, June 27 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Here’s some background on the two Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap under the twin spires, which have both been very important preps in recent years:

Fleur de Lis Stakes

First run in 1975, the Fleur de Lis Stakes was extended to its current distance of 1 1/8 miles in 1983. The first real crossover with the Longines Distaff occurred in 1996, when champion filly Serena’s Song won the Fleur de Lis by a half-length and then, six starts later, surrendered late in the Distaff to finish second behind Jewel Princess. After finishing third in the 1997 Distaff, Allan Paulson’s Escena put together a 1998 campaign that would include three wins at Churchill Downs – the Louisville Breeders’ Cup Handicap, the Fleur de Lis, and the Distaff – and garner her an Eclipse Award as champion older female.

Banshee Breeze, who lost the 1998 Distaff by a nose to Escena during her champion 3-year-old season, came back to win the 1999 Fleur de Lis and run second again in the Distaff, this time to Beautiful Pleasure. The third-place finisher in the 1999 Distaff, Heritage of Gold, went on to win the 2000 Fleur de Lis and then notch another third-place effort in that year’s Distaff at Churchill Downs, won by Spain. Spain, owned by Prince Ahmed bin Salman’s Thoroughbred Corporation and trained by D. Wayne Lukas, finished second in the 2001 Distaff to Unbridled Elaine and won the 2002 Fleur de Lis in her second-to-last career start.

In 2006, Happy Ticket won the Fleur de Lis and was elevated to second in the Distaff run at Churchill Downs when Asi Siempre was disqualified to fourth. But the most fruitful crossover between the Fleur de Lis and Distaff occurred during 2011-13, thanks to the great Royal Delta. The Bill Mott-trained daughter of Empire Maker won the 2011 Distaff as a 3-year-old, romped in the 2012 Fleur de Lis by eight lengths in 2012, and then scored again in the Distaff. In 2013, she finished second in the Fleur de Lis and fourth in the Distaff but nevertheless picked up her third Eclipse Award in a row.

In 2017, Forever Unbridled became the third horse to win the Fleur de Lis and the Longines Distaff in the same calendar year. She made her 2017 debut under the Twin Spires for Dallas Stewart and won the Fleur de Lis by 1 ¾ lengths. Stewart patiently campaigned his mare throughout the summer and early fall, giving her only one more start (a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes) before shipping to Del Mar. Facing a talented Distaff field, Forever Unbridled rallied stoutly under John Velazquez to defeat Abel Tasman by a half-length.

In 2018, Blue Prize won the Fleur de Lis by 1 ½ lengths to kick off a three-race winning streak that included another Distaff qualifier, the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keeneland in October. She then ran a good fourth behind Monomoy Girl in the Longines Distaff on Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs, her last race of 2018. The Ignacio Correas-trained mare returned in 2019 for a repeat bid in the Fleur de Lis, but finished 1 ½ lengths behind Elate. She trained on to win two of three starts heading into the Breeders’ Cup, including a repeat score in the Spinster Stakes where she turned the tables on Elate, and then closed out her racing career with a memorable victory over Midnight Bisou in the Longines Distaff at Santa Anita. (Midnight Bisou headlines the field for this year’s Fleur de Lis on Saturday.)

Stephen Foster Stakes

The 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster Stakes, one of Churchill Downs’ most prestigious dirt races for older horses, dates back to 1982, two years before the inaugural Breeders’ Cup World Championships. The Foster was not a graded stakes until 1988, however, and it was shortly after that when it became more relevant to Thoroughbred racing’s signature year-end event. After beginning his career as a sprinter-miler, Black Tie Affair was extended to longer races and won the Foster in 1991 by 2 ¾ lengths after making all of the pace. That fall, he would fashion a similar front-running trip to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic under Jerry Bailey, and subsequently receive the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.

The Foster-Classic double would be achieved again in 1998, when Stronach Stables’ Awesome Again defeated 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm in both races. Pat Day, Churchill Downs’ all-time leading rider, had the mount on Awesome Again for both wins.

During the mid-2000s, the indefatigable and popular Perfect Drift was a regular presence in Louisville’s Stephen Foster and at the Breeders’ Cup. The Dynaformer gelding, third in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, ran last of 12 in that year’s Classic, but then scored a memorable upset win over eventual Horse of the Year Mineshaft in the 2003 Foster. He would go on to finish third, third, and second in the next three editions of the Foster – the last by a nose to 91.70-1 shot Seek Gold – while also running in four more Classics, finishing third in 2005 and fourth in 2004.

Perfect Drift’s 2005 third-place efforts in the Foster and Classic came at the hooves of Saint Liam, the third horse to win both races in the same year. Saint Liam was honored as 2005 Horse of the Year by Eclipse Award voters. The next two years were a coming-out party for future Hall of Famer Curlin, and the physically imposing son of Smart Strike would leave his mark on the Classic first, romping in the Monmouth Park slop in 2007 before returning to his home state the next summer and toying with a Foster field that included Grade 1 winners Einstein and Brass Hat in a 4 ¼-length blowout. Curlin was voted Horse of the Year in both 2007 and 2008.

The importance of the Stephen Foster Stakes as a Breeders’ Cup Classic prep race has continued to grow over the past decade. Blame won the 2010 Foster for owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider and trainer Albert Stall, and returned in November to Churchill Downs to compete in a Classic that no one who watched will ever forget, when he somehow held off the onrushing late charge of Zenyatta to hand that Hall of Fame racemare her only career defeat.

In 2012, Janis Whitham’s Fort Larned was part of a competitive eight-horse field that comprised the first “Downs After Dark” edition of the Stephen Foster. The gelding contested the pace through the backstretch but would tire to finish last in an absolutely thrilling race that ended with Ron the Greek edging eventual 2012 and 2013 Horse of the Year Wise Dan at the wire.

Fort Larned rebounded off of that effort to win two out of his next three starts, including the Whitney Invitational at Saratoga, before scoring a half-length win over Mucho Macho Man in the 2012 Classic at Santa Anita Park. In 2013, Fort Larned would return to Churchill Downs and win the Foster by 6 ¼ lengths.

Gun Runner entered the 2017 Stephen Foster as arguably the best older dirt horse in training aside from Arrogate, having finished second to that foe in the Dubai World Cup earlier in the spring. The son of Candy Ride overmatched seven other horses under the lights at Churchill, winning the Foster by seven lengths, and that turned out to be a prelude to even more spectacular races in the months to follow.

Under trainer Steve Asmussen’s guidance, Gun Runner easily won the Whitney Stakes and Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Saratoga to set up a return matchup against Arrogate in a star-studded Breeders’ Cup Classic that concluded a successful World Championships debut at Del Mar.

In the Classic, Gun Runner was sent to the front by jockey Florent Geroux and spurted clear of pace challenger Collected at the top of the stretch to win by 2 ¼ lengths, with Arrogate finishing a non-threatening fifth. Gun Runner would race once more, romping in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and retire as 2017’s Horse of the Year.

Last year, Churchill Downs specialist Seeking the Soul scored a mild upset win in the Stephen Foster; the veteran horse campaigned by Charles Fipke went on to run sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. He was retired last week at age 7 due to a tendon injury.

Watch the Fleur de Lis Stakes and the Stephen Foster Stakes from Churchill Downs on Saturday, June 27 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.