Road to the 2021 Breeders’ Cup: Whitney Stakes a Crucial Classic Prep

The prep season for the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships is in full swing, and this Saturday, Aug. 7, 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 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Whitney Stakes is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series Presented by America’s Best Racing “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Nov. 6 Classic, with the Whitney winner earning an expenses-paid spot in the starting gate. The 38th Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be held for the second time at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6, 2021.

The Whitney will be broadcast on the NYRA-produced show “Saratoga Live!,” airing Saturday on FS2. America’s Best Racing and Breeders’ Cup also present a livestream Saturday, “Breeders’ Cup Live!: The Whitney,” that will showcase the race and include several guests.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for more than $31 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.

Here’s some background on the Whitney and other key races on the road to the Breeders’ Cup this weekend:

Whitney Stakes

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, Gallorette, Tom Fool, Kelso (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 consistently been 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 nonthreatening 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. He subsequently became a cornerstone stallion for Frank Stronach’s Adena Springs in Kentucky.

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.

Four summers ago, Gun Runner defeated Keen Ice by a comfortable 5 ¼ lengths in the Whitney, the second of what turned out to be five consecutive Grade 1 wins to close out his career. Gun Runner also earned some social media notoriety that day when somehow, a horseshoe lost by the Whitney pacesetter became entangled in his tail and he carried it the rest of the way, getting an unexpected (albeit small) weight handicap. The Steve Asmussen-trained son of Candy Ride went on to take the Woodward Stakes 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 Invitational Stakes 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 2019 Whitney winner, Bob Baffert-trained California invader McKinzie, subsequently finished second to Whitney third-place finisher Vino Rosso in the Breeders’ Cup Classic back at his home base of Santa Anita Park. Last year’s Whitney winner, Baffert-trained Improbable, also came in second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic three months later, finishing behind stablemate Authentic at Keeneland. 2020 Whitney runner-up By My Standards is scheduled to start in this year’s renewal along with a handful of other top-class horses.

Other weekend races:

There are several other graded stakes on tap for this upcoming weekend that are not “Win and You’re In” qualifiers but have produced runners who have occasionally gone on to shine in the Breeders’ Cup. They include the Yellow Ribbon Handicap at Del Mar, a turf race for fillies and mares. The superbly-bred Intercontinental won the Yellow Ribbon in 2005 (then known as the Palomar Handicap) for Bobby Frankel before defeating Ouija Board and several other top-class females in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Belmont Park. And the 2017 Yellow Ribbon winner, Cambodia, finished a good third in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar before coming back to win the Yellow Ribbon again in 2018.

The Longines Test Stakes, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga, has had a significant impact on the Breeders’ Cup as winners include the aforementioned Lady’s Secret (’85 Test, ’86 Distaff), Hall of Famer Go For Wand (’89 Juvenile Fillies, won the ’90 Test before tragically breaking down in the Distaff), and champion Indian Blessing (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in ’07, Test in ’08).

The last two Test Stakes winners have kept up that crossover momentum and then some. 2019 victress Covfefe turned in one of the most memorable performances of that fall’s World Championships at Santa Anita when she won the Filly and Mare Sprint by a three-quarters of a length over Bellafina, and last year, Gamine also took the Test path to Breeders’ Cup glory, romping at Saratoga by seven lengths and setting a stakes record time of 1:20.83 and then nearly matching that at Keeneland with a 6 ¼-length runaway in the Filly and Mare Sprint. Both fillies received Eclipse Awards as champion female sprinter for their respective seasons. Covfefe also was honored as champion 3-year-old filly of 2019.

Another Saratoga race for 3-year-olds, the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes, has sent several high-class runners on to earn Breeders’ Cup distinction, including Artie Schiller (won the Hall of Fame Stakes in 2004 and the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2005), Courageous Cat (won the 2009 Hall of Fame, runner-up in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Mile), and Big Blue Kitten (won the 2011 Hall of Fame, third in the 2015 Longines Turf and champion turf male that year).

Perhaps the best of them all, Bricks and Mortar used the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes as his coming-out party in 2017, scoring his first graded stakes win by three-quarters of a length. The Chad Brown trainee had his momentum halted by injuries in the fall and was away for more than a year, but he returned with a vengeance in late 2018 to win seven races in a row all the way through the 2019 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita. He was voted Horse of the Year by Eclipse Award contributors and also was honored as champion turf male for 2019.

The 5 ½-furlong Troy Stakes Presented by Horse Racing Ireland, held this year on Friday at Saratoga, became a graded stakes for the first time in 2018. The race has been won by a trio of horses over the past decade that have also hit the board in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint: Green Mask (won the 2017 Troy and runner-up in 2016; also third in the 2015 Breeders’Cup Turf Sprint); Disco Partner (won 2016 Troy and third in 2018 and 2019; third in both the 2017 and 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints); and Leinster (won the 2019 Troy; third in the 2020 Turf Sprint). In addition, Bridgetown, runner-up in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, won the Troy in 2011 and 2012. This year’s Glens Falls Stakes is set for Saturday at Saratoga on the Whitney undercard; runners in this race for fillies and mares 3 years old and up have on occasion gone on to run well in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, including Honey Ryder (second in 2007) and Keertana (third in 2010).

At Del Mar, the six-furlong Sorrento Stakes for 2-year-old fillies served as the coming-out party for Champagne Room in 2016, as the Peter Eurton-trained filly broke her maiden in the Grade 2 stakes, making her second career start. Three races later, Champagne Room scored a 33.60-1 upset win in the 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita. She received the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly of 2016. The Adirondack Stakes at Saratoga for 2-year-old fillies likewise served as the springboard for 2011 champion 2-year-old female My Miss Aurelia, who won that year’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Fillies at Churchill Downs.

The Best Pal Stakes for 2-year-olds, also at Del Mar, served as the coming-out party for eventual 2009 champion juvenile male Lookin At Lucky, second in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and in 2015 another future juvenile champion took the Best Pal road to the Breeders’ Cup, when Nyquist took the Grade 2 stakes as the second of eight consecutive wins to begin his career, including the Juvenile and the 2016 Kentucky Derby. 

And the La Jolla Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile turf race at Del Mar, produced a Breeders’ Cup Mile winner on a one-year delay back in 2003. Singletary scored by a half-length that year, and 14 months and seven starts later he pulled off a 16.50-1 upset in the Mile at Lone Star Park for the Little Red Feather Racing syndicate.

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