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. 

Royal silks return as King Charles III’s horse finishes 2nd

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SALISBURY, England – The famous royal silks returned to British horse racing with the first runner under the ownership of King Charles III finishing a distant second at Salisbury.

Educator was the first horse to wear the purple, red and gold silks since the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8.

Her oldest son and heir, Charles, has taken on the royal stable and Educator was sent off as the 11-10 favorite under jockey Tom Marquand for the Radcliffe & Co Handicap.

Okeechobee won by 4 \ lengths in the four-horse race.

The queen’s last runner was Improvise, who was beaten narrowly at Epsom on the day the monarch died at her Balmoral estate in Scotland.

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!