Road to the Breeders' Cup: Closing-Day Classic and Distaff Preps at Churchill

Another Triple Crown season is in the books following Essential Quality’s win in the June 5 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 2021 World Championships.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup has the potential to be one of the most exciting in the event’s history, as racing fans return to tracks around North America following a year-plus absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be held at Del Mar for the second time on Nov. 5-6, 2021.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $30 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 31, when Smooth Like Strait won the Shoemaker Mile Stakes at Santa Anita Park and secured a spot in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile. On June 5 at Belmont Park, three more “Win and You’re In” races were highlights of the loaded Belmont Stakes undercard, as Silver State won the Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap (a qualifier for the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile), Letruksa dominated in the Ogden Phipps Stakes to gain entry to the Longines Distaff, and Casa Creed scored an upset win in the Jackpocket Jaipur Stakes to qualify for the Turf Sprint.

The prep season picks back up this coming weekend, as on June 26, Churchill Downs will host two Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races along with five other stakes on the closing day card of its spring 2021 meet. The first is the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Stakes which brings together older fillies and mares in a qualifier for the Longines Distaff. That will be followed by the first domestic “Win and You’re In” prep race for the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Grade 2 Stephen Foster Stakes.

Both the Stephen Foster and the Fleur de Lis will be broadast live on the NYRA-produced show “America’s Day at the Races,” airing on FS2 Saturday.

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 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 bit 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 last year’s Fleur de Lis for her final career victory in a stellar career but was retired with an injury in September prior to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland.

This year’s renewal of the Fleur de Lis is expected to draw Letruksa, shipping in just three weeks after her impressive victory in the “Win and You’re In” Ogden Phipps at Belmont, along with graded stakes winners Envoutante and Point of Honor.

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 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 Handicap as a Breeders’ Cup Classic prep race has continued to grow over the past dozen 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 non-threatening 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 small but quality field headlined by multiple graded stakes winner Maxfield, who is six-for-seven in his career and three-for-three at Churchill, along with multiple graded stakes winners Silver Dust (third in last year’s Foster) and Warrior’s Charge. 

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