Another Triple Crown season is in the books following Mo Donegal’s win in the June 11 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. Now, for fans following the upper echelon of the sport, the main focus shifts toward the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series. The series’ “Win and You’re In” events give the best horses in training qualifying berths for the 2022 World Championships.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup has added significance as racing fans return to picturesque Keeneland Race Course just two years after the event was held there with very limited attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be held at Keeneland for the third time overall on Nov. 4-5, 2022.
The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $28 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.
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 30, when Count Again won the Shoemaker Mile Stakes at Santa Anita Park and secured a spot in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile. On June 11 at Belmont Park, three more “Win and You’re In” races were highlights of the loaded Belmont Stakes undercard, as Flightline dominated the Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap (a qualifier for the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile), Clairiere won in the Ogden Phipps Stakes to gain entry to the Longines Distaff, and Casa Creed posted a repeat victory in the Jaipur Stakes to qualify for the Turf Sprint.
The prep season picks back up this coming Independence Day holiday weekend. On July 2, Churchill Downs will host one important Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races along with five other stakes. Saturday’s marquee event under the Twin Spires is the first domestic “Win and You’re In” prep race for the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic: the Grade 2 Stephen Foster Stakes.
Another prep is set for Saturday in south Florida, where Gulfstream Park will run the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Invitational Stakes on Saturday, a Challenge Series qualifying race for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
The Stephen Foster will be televised live on NBC as part of the network’s Breeders’ Cup coverage starting at 4 p.m. ET. The Princess Rooney will be shown live on TVG.
Here’s some background on the Stephen Foster and Princess Rooney, as well as a few other stakes races that have been important on the road to the World Championships:
Stephen Foster Stakes
The 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster, 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 controlling 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. (Read about the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic and its lineup of great horses in Mike Curry’s look back.)
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 Handicap as a Breeders’ Cup Classic prep race has continued to grow over the past dozen or so years. 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 watching 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 nonthreatening fifth. Gun Runner would race once more, romping in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes at Gulfstream Park in January 2018, and retire as 2017’s Horse of the Year.
Saturday’s renewal of the Foster is expected to draw a quality field headlined by Mandaloun, who was made the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner earlier this year via disqualification.
Princess Rooney Invitational Stakes
The Princess Rooney Stakes dates back to 1985 and thus has a longer history than the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, which was first held in 2007. It is named after Paula Tucker’s 1984 champion older female Princess Rooney. That eventual Hall of Famer began her career with four consecutive wins at South Florida’s Calder Race Course in 1982 and 10 wins in a row overall, and ended it by winning the inaugural 1984 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park by a widening seven lengths under Eddie Delahoussaye.
During its first two decades, the Princess Rooney was won by such top-class racemares as Chaposa Springs, Hurricane Bertie, Dream Supreme, and Gold Mover, who won the race in both 2002 and 2003. Miraculous Miss, who finished second in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint in 2007, was runner-up in the ’08 Princess Rooney, and the latter race has had an impact on the Breeders’ Cup ever since. In 2010, Dubai Majesty finished third in the Princess Rooney but then won three out of her remaining four starts, culminating in the Filly and Mare Sprint, to claim the Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter (that divisional honor also was first awarded in 2007).
One year later, Calder mainstay Musical Romance was edged by Sassy Image in the Princess Rooney; the daughter of Concorde’s Tune, trained and co-owned by Bill Kaplan, went on to win the Filly and Mare Sprint and earn an Eclipse Award. Musical Romance then won the Princess Rooney in 2012.
Florida-bred Stormy Embrace won back-to-back editions of the Princess Rooney in 2018 and 2019 but was not a factor in her only try in the Filly and Mare Sprint, finishing 11th in ’18. The Princess Rooney was not held in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic but came back last year and, as it turned out, was the crucial prep for that fall’s Filly and Mare Sprint.
Bo Hirsch’s Grade 1-winning mare Ce Ce had finished fifth in the 2020 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff but started targeting shorter races in early ’21, and she dominated the Princess Rooney by 3 ¼ lengths to earn a “Win and You’re In” bid to the Filly and Mare Sprint. She won a Grade 3 race at Santa Anita and finished third to super-fast Gamine in the Grade 1 Ballerina Stakes at Saratoga during the interim, and she was sent off at 6.20-1 odds in a five-horse field at Del Mar headlined by 2-5 favorite Gamine. Under a patient Victor Espinoza, Ce Ce stalked the pace set by leaders Gamine and Bella Sofia early on but moved up four wide on the turn and then rocketed to the lead in midstretch to win going away by 2 ½ lengths. Hirsch’s mare received the Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter for 2021.
Ce Ce has kept good form in her three starts so far this year, winning the Grade 2 Azeri Stakes and finishing second and third in two other graded stakes, and she is slated to bid for a repeat score in the Princess Rooney this Saturday.
Other important races:
The Fleur de Lis Stakes at Churchill Downs was a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff from 2015-’21, but was removed from the schedule this year as the Breeders’ Cup switched to a regional division Challenge Series format with races more evenly distributed across North America. First run in 1975, the Fleur de Lis 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 for its first hosting of the World Championships. 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 closed out that season with a good fourth behind Monomoy Girl in the Longines Distaff on Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs, but came back for another eventful campaign at age 6.
The Ignacio Correas-trained mare finished third in the La Troienne Stakes Presented by Inside Access from Chase at Churchill in May 2019, and then ran second in her bid for a Fleur de Lis repeat behind Elate. After finishing third in the Delaware Handicap, Blue Prize closed out her career with three straight wins, including a Spinster Stakes repeat and then an upset victory over Midnight Bisou in the 2019 Longines Distaff at Santa Anita Park.
Midnight Bisou took the 2020 Fleur de Lis for her final victory in a stellar career that concluded when was retired with an injury in September prior to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, and last year’s Fleur de Lis winner, Letruska, finished a disappointing 10th of 11 runners as the 1.70-favorite in the Longines Distaff at Del Mar but was nevertheless voted champion older dirt female at the Eclipse Awards.
Like the Fleur de Lis, the John A. Nerud Stakes at Belmont Park was a “Win and You’re In” race – in this case for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint from 2017-’21 – but has been taken off the prep schedule this year. It was previously named the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes, and in 2014 took the place of the James Marvin Stakes, which was run at Saratoga from 2008-’13, on NYRA’s stakes calendar. The race was renamed for 2019 to honor the late Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud, one of the most influential figures in the Thoroughbred industry during the 20th Century.
The best horse to run during the race’s era as the James Marvin probably was 2011 winner Jackson Bend. That Florida-bred millionaire ran third in the Preakness Stakes in 2010, won the James Marvin on Saratoga’s opening day in 2011, and would thrive over the next several months in one-turn races, running third in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
In 2014, Clearly Now won the Belmont Sprint Championship, and runner-up Palace and third place-finisher Salutos Amigos would go on to run sixth and seventh in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Private Zone, third in the ’14 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, became one of the best sprinters in the country over the next year, winning four graded stakes, including two Grade 1s, and romping in the 2015 Belmont Sprint Championship by 3 ¼ lengths over Clearly Now. He went on to finish three-quarters of a length behind champion Runhappy in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland.
Private Zone finished fourth in the 2016 Belmont Sprint Championship behind another top-class sprinter, A. P. Indian. A. P. Indian in turn checked in fourth in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint but was elevated to third when runner-up Masochistic was disqualified for a medication violation weeks later.
In its first year as a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” race, the 2017 Belmont Sprint Championship drew a high-class, competitive field, and 7-5 favorite Mind Your Biscuits proved much the best, defeating Awesome Slew by 3 ½ lengths. Mind Your Biscuits had previously finished second in the aforementioned 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (moved up from third via DQ), and after his Belmont Sprint score he would train on to finish third in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Del Mar and then continue to perform well until retiring in fall 2018.
The workmanlike Whitmore, a fan favorite for an eternity it seemed prior to his retirement in 2021, just missed in the 2018 Belmont Sprint Championship, losing by a neck to Limousine Liberal. He finished second in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint and third in the 2019 Sprint, and then in 2020 turned in a career-best performance in the Sprint at Keeneland, winning by 3 ¼ lengths and securing the Eclipse Award as champion male sprinter.
The six-furlong Grade 3 Smile Sprint Stakes was part of Calder Race Course’s marquee “Summit of Speed” racecard until 2014. After a one-year hiatus, the Smile Sprint, the Princess Rooney Handicap, and the rest of the “Summit” races were moved to Gulfstream Park.
A significant Smile Sprint-Breeders’ Cup connection occurred in 2002, when D. Wayne Lukas’ Orientate won the Smile Sprint at Calder under Mike Smith and then took the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Arlington International Racecourse. The Breeders’ Cup win was Orientate’s fifth straight stakes score and his career finale. He was honored as 2002 champion sprinter by Eclipse Award voters.
The second dual winner came in 2010, when Harold Queen’s homebred Big Drama took both the Smile Sprint and then the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, which was held at Churchill Downs. Not surprisingly, the Florida-bred son of Montbrook received the Eclipse Award as 2010 champion sprinter.
More recently, Trinniberg, 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and champion sprinter, finished second in the ’13 Smile Sprint, and in 2015, Favorite Tale won the first running of the Smile Sprint at Gulfstream Park and then finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint behind champion Runhappy and the aforementioned Private Zone.
In 2017, Imperial Hint romped in the Smile Sprint by 4 ¾ lengths to earn a Breeders’ Cup berth, and he validated that performance with a sharp runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, finishing a length behind Roy H. He also finished third in the 2018 Sprint, behind repeat winner Roy H and Whitmore.
Saturday’s Grade 3 Delaware Oaks for 3-year-old fillies at Delaware Park has been won by notables such as Blind Luck in 2010 (who would then finish second to Unrivaled Belle in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic – as the Distaff was then named – that fall), Grace Hall in 2014 (later fourth in that year’s Ladies’ Classic), and Jaywalk in 2019 (who had won the Juvenile Fillies and been awarded champion juvenile filly honors the year before).
The Grade 2 Great Lady M Stakes held Monday, July 4 at Los Alamitos has a recent connection to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, as Finest City won both races in 2016. However, the Great Lady M was held in April of that year rather than in midsummer. Finest City ran again in the Great Lady M Stakes the summer after her win in the World Championships and finished third. Marley’s Freedom won the Great Lady M in 2018, finished a close fourth in the Filly and Mare Sprint, and won the Great Lady M again in 2019 in what turned out to be her final race. And the above-mentioned Gamine romped in the 2021 Great Lady M by 10 lengths at 1-5 odds for the third of four consecutive wins to launch her 4-year-old season, only to falter late and finish third in the Filly and Mare Sprint won by Ce Ce.