August 28 marks an important point on the Thoroughbred racing calendar as owners, trainers, and jockeys continue to hone in on the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar with November approaching. Year in and year out, the last weekend of August is one where several horses will emerge as leading contenders for various Breeders’ Cup races, many of them doing so at historic Saratoga Race Course.
The penultimate weekend at the Spa traditionally is highlighted by the track’s signature race for 3-year-olds, the $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes, which, although not an official Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifying race, often sends its best performers on to the World Championships. Three other races on the card are “Win and You’re In” preps: the $750,000 Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer Stakes (Longines Turf), the $600,000 Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infiniti (Longines Distaff), and the $500,000 Ketel One Ballerina Stakes (Filly and Mare Sprint).
Saturday’s television coverage will be led by Fox Sports’ national broadcast of the Travers, airing on FOX from 5 to 6:30 p.m. ET. Additional Saratoga coverage on Aug. 24, including broadcasts of the “Win and You’re In” races, will be offered via “Saratoga Live,” NYRA’s flagship show presented by America’s Best Racing. That broadcast will air from 11:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. ET and from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on FS1 and FS2. The Pat O’Brien Stakes will be televised by TVG.
The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $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 Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races, the Travers Stakes, and other important races on tap this weekend:
The Sword Dancer, a 1 ½-mile prep for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, was held at Belmont Park during the early years of the Breeders’ Cup era before moving to Saratoga in 1991. It has been won by some of the best U.S.-based grass horses from the past 30-plus years, starting with Theatrical in 1987. That Irish-bred son of Nureyev began his career in his native country and actually finished 11th in the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Turf in his third career start. By mid-1986, he was in the U.S. to stay, and came just a neck short of capturing that autumn’s Turf, won by Hall of Famer Manila. In 1987, Theatrical won both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, with Pat Day aboard for both victories. He was honored as champion turf male of 1987 by Eclipse Award voters and went on to become a successful sire.
In 1988, Darby Dan Farm’s Sunshine Forever finished second in both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, the latter by a half-length to Great Communicator. El Senor won back-to-back editions of the Sword Dancer in 1989 and 1990 and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in ’90. And in 1992, a second horse scored the Sword Dancer-Breeders’ Cup Turf double as Madeleine Paulson’s Fraise won at Saratoga by four lengths, and, after two losses, rallied from last along the rail under Pat Valenzuela to edge champion Sky Classic in the Breeders’ Cup Turf by a nose.
Popular gelding John’s Call romped by 9 ¼ lengths in the 2000 Sword Dancer and went on to finish a close third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs. Another fan favorite gelding, With Anticipation, won the Sword Dancer in both 2001 and 2002; he finished second to Ireland’s High Chaparral in the ’02 Turf. (Volponi, third in the ’02 Sword Dancer, would score a 43.50-1 upset win in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic).
Yet another beloved gelding, Better Talk Now, would become the third horse to win both the Sword Dancer and Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2004. Owned by Bushwood Stables and trained by Graham Motion, the son of Talkin Man earned his first top-level win in the Sword Dancer with a last-to-first charge under jockey Ramon Dominguez. Two starts later, he posted a driving, 27.90-1 upset win over champion Kitten’s Joy in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Lone Star Park. Better Talk Now would be a constant presence in Grade 1 turf stakes over the next five years, finishing second in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Turf and runner-up in both the 2008 and 2009 editions of Sword Dancer (the latter his final start) as part of a splendid nine-season career that saw him earn more than $4.3 million.
Grand Couturier, an English-bred horse who started his career racing in Europe, finished third in the 2006 Sword Dancer but won the next two runnings, defeating English Channel in 2007 and Better Talk Now in 2008. English Channel, arguably one of the two or three best U.S.-bred turf horses of the 2000s, rebounded to win the ’07 Breeders’ Cup Turf by seven lengths on a rain-softened grass course at Monmouth Park. Horses who won or ran well in the Sword Dancer have continued on to the Breeders’ Cup more often than not over the subsequent years, with notable showings coming from Point of Entry (won the Sword Dancer in 2012, second to Little Mike in the Breeders’ Cup Turf) and Flintshire (won the 2015 and 2016 Sword Dancers, and second in both the 2014 and 2016 Breeders’ Cup Turfs).
In 2014, another Graham Motion-trained horse won both the Sword Dancer and the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Flaxman Holdings’ Main Sequence scored a hard-fought victory by a head at Saratoga and then defeated Flintshire by a half-length in the Turf in the latter’s first start in the U.S. He received Eclipse Awards as both champion turf male and champion older male that year.
The 2017 Sword Dancer winner, Sadler’s Joy, finished a good fourth in the Longines Turf at Del Mar. He finished sixth in the 2018 Sword Dancer but improved a spot in the Longines Turf at Churchill Downs, nabbing third behind superstar European horses Enable and Magical. Sadler’s Joy then finished second in the 2019 Sword Dancer and fourth in the 2020 renewal and is still in training at age 8. Channel Maker, winner of the 2020 Sword Dancer and third in 2019, finished a good third behind Tarnawa and Magical in the 2020 Longines Turf and was honored as champion turf male last year. He is listed as a probable for Saturday’s race.
The Personal Ensign was named after Ogden Phipps’ champion filly and 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner in 1998 and, prior to that, was run as the John Morris Handicap (from 1986 to 1997) and as the Firenze Handicap (from its beginning in 1948 to 1985). The race was held at 1 1/8 miles during the early years of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff before being extended to 1 ¼ miles in 1995; it was then shortened back up to 1 1/8 miles in 2012. There was not a lot of crossover between the two races through the early 1990s, although Versailles Treaty did finish second in both in 1992, and Heavenly Prize won the John Morris and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 1995. But in 1999, that all changed in a very big way. Beautiful Pleasure, owned by John Oxley and trained by John Ward, took the Personal Ensign by 2 ¼ lengths over odds-on favorite Banshee Breeze, and then defeated that foe again in a swiftly-run ’99 Distaff at Gulfstream Park. Not surprisingly, Beautiful Pleasure would receive the champion older female Eclipse Award for ’99, and she would go on to win the 2000 Personal Ensign and finish second in the 2001 edition as well.
In 2004, Storm Flag Flying, the champion juvenile filly of 2002, won the Personal Ensign, defeating ’02 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner and Horse of the Year Azeri. Storm Flag Flying would go on to finish second to another champion and Hall of Famer, Ashado, in the ’04 Distaff. Ginger Punch, winner of the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and that year’s champion older female, returned in 2008 to take the Personal Ensign. And in 2012, the great Royal Delta finished second to Love and Pride in the Personal Ensign before winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, as it was then named, at Santa Anita Park. The Bill Mott trainee returned in 2013 to win the Personal Ensign, which turned out to be her final career victory.
Six years ago, Stopchargingmaria finished fourth in the 2015 Personal Ensign but summoned a peak performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff months later at Keeneland (Personal Ensign winner Sheer Drama finished fourth in the Distaff). In 2016, Forever Unbridled finished third in both races during a campaign that placed her just behind superstars Beholder and Songbird. The Dallas Stewart-trained daughter of Unbridled’s Song had improved substantially by the time the 2017 Personal Ensign rolled around, however, and proved her class by defeating Songbird (runner-up in the 2016 Longines Distaff) by a neck in a game effort. Forever Unbridled subsequently trained up to the 2017 Longines Distaff and capped off an Eclipse Award-winning season by winning that race against a quality field. She was retired after finishing fifth in the 2018 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline.
Abel Tasman and Elate finished second and fourth, respectively, behind Forever Unbridled in the 2017 Longines Distaff, and then in 2018 finished 1-2 in a thrilling renewal of the Personal Ensign, which Abel Tasman won by a neck. Wow Cat, the third-place finisher behind that pair, would train on to win the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes and then run a good second behind Monomoy Girl in the Longines Distaff. Two years ago, the Personal Ensign again produced a memorably heart-pounding result as Midnight Bisou defeated Elate by a nose. Midnight Bisou would train on to finish second in the 2019 Longines Distaff at Santa Anita, while Elate finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Ballerina Stakes, a seven-furlong sprint, has been won by such notables as Lady’s Secret (1985, runner-up in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff and winner of the 1986 Distaff), champion Queena (1991), and millionaires Dream Supreme (2000) and Lady Tak (2004). In the first year the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint was held – 2007 – a Ballerina winner took top honors. Maryfield scored by 1 ½ lengths under Elvis Trujillo in the midst of a Monmouth Park monsoon and would receive the first-ever champion female sprinter Eclipse Award for her efforts.
Informed Decision, third in the 2009 Ballerina, won the Filly and Mare Sprint and the Eclipse Award for owner Augustin Stable. And Better Lucky, fourth in the 2014 Ballerina, nearly won that year’s Filly and Mare Sprint, coming up a head short of champion Judy the Beauty.
By the Moon, second in the 2016 Ballerina and fifth in the Filly and Mare Sprint, won the 2017 Ballerina in a mild upset as 2.45-1 favorite Paulassilverlining finished fifth. Both of those racemares were also-rans in a wild Filly and Mare Sprint at Del Mar that produced a $1,030 exacta (Carina Mia finished third in both the Ballerina and the Filly and Mare Sprint). The 2018 Ballerina winner, Marley’s Freedom, ran fourth at 9-10 odds as part of another blanket finish in the Filly and Mare Sprint, won by 25.90-1 shot Shamrock Rose.
2019 Ballerina runner-up Dawn the Destroyer finished third in that fall’s Filly and Mare Sprint, and last year, top-class Serengeti Empress won the Ballerina and months later finished runner-up to champion Gamine in the Filly and Mare Sprint at Keeneland after setting a typically fast early pace. Gamine is pointed to Saturday’s Ballerina.
The Pat O’Brien was first held in 1986 and is named after Del Mar’s co-founder. The first horse to exit the race and make waves at the World Championships was Cardmania, who finished third in the 1993 Pat O’Brien but then won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a neck at Santa Anita Park (the gelding also finished third in the 1994 Sprint). Lit de Justice, winner of the 1995 Pat O’Brien, finished third in that year’s Sprint and then checked in third in the 1996 Pat O’Brien before winning the Sprint in a driving finish. The horse that defeated Lit de Justice in the ’96 Pat O’Brien, Alphabet Soup, won that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic in a 19.85-1 upset over Louis Quatorze and the legendary Cigar.
In 2004, Pat O’Brien winner Kela finished second to Speightstown in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Lone Star Park. A year later, Taste of Paradise took third in the Pat O’Brien and then came a head short of winning the Sprint at Belmont Park. 2009 Pat O’Brien winner Zensational was fifth as the 9-5 favorite in a thrilling Breeders’ Cup Sprint that saw the top four finishers separated by less than half a length. And in 2013 and 2014, Goldencents made his mark in the Pat O’Brien and in the Breeders’ Cup, albeit not in the Sprint. The talented runner finished second in the Pat O’Brien in ’13 to Fed Biz and turned the tables on that foe in 2014 – and he also won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in both years.
Goldencents is the only Pat O’Brien horse to date that’s made an impact on the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (Fed Biz ran in three consecutive editions from 2012 to ’14 and was unplaced in all of them). The 2016 Pat O’Brien winner, Masochistic, ran second to Drefong in the Sprint at Santa Anita but was later disqualified due to a medication violation. Last year’s Pat O’Brien winner, C Z Rocket, checked in second in the Sprint to champion Whitmore.
The 1 ¼-mile Travers Stakes may not be a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup, but that certainly does not mean that it lacks significance as a prep race. On the contrary, many 3-year-olds who have excelled in Saratoga’s crown jewel race have gone on to excel at the World Championships. Thirty-three years ago, Forty Niner, second to the filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, won a thrilling Travers by a nose over Seeking the Gold. The pair would contest a star-studded Breeders’ Cup Classic that November at Churchill Downs, where Forty Niner would finish fourth and Seeking the Gold second to the great Hall of Famer Alysheba.
One year later, Belmont Stakes winner and Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Easy Goer won the Travers by a comfortable three lengths. That was the third in what would become a five-race winning streak for Easy Goer as he entered the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Ogden Phipps homebred had absolutely dominated his opponents for nearly three months and was sent off as the 1-2 favorite in the Classic, but in one of the greatest races in history, he settled for second-best to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness vanquisher Sunday Silence, beaten by a neck.
Five years later, the two horses turned back by Hall of Famer Holy Bull in his incredible 1994 Travers Stakes win – Concern and Tabasco Cat – finished first and second, respectively, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, separated by a neck. (Holy Bull skipped the Breeders’ Cup but was still voted Horse of the Year as a 3-year-old.) The 1996 Travers also produced two horses that would shine in the months ahead. Runner-up Louis Quatorze finished a nose behind the aforementioned Alphabet Soup in that fall’s Classic, and third-place finisher Skip Away would dominate the 1997 Classic by six lengths (and be voted Horse of the Year in 1998).
In 2002, Travers winner Medaglia d’Oro ran a distant second to longshot Volponi (mentioned above) in an unpredictable Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Bobby Frankel-trained horse would also finish second in the 2003 Classic and is one of North America’s leading sires today. 2005 Travers winner Flower Alley finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Saint Liam, and one year later, Bernardini likewise won the Travers and ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Invasor.
More recently, the Travers served as the breakthrough race for D. Wayne Lukas-trained Will Take Charge, who rallied in the last jump to nip Moreno by a nose at Saratoga. Unfortunately for his connections and fans, that nose margin would turn out to be his measure of defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that fall at Santa Anita, as Will Take Charge lived up to his name with a powerful closing kick, only to fall just short of victorious Mucho Macho Man in one of the most exciting races in recent years.
In 2014, 2.45-1 Travers favorite Bayern finished last of 10 in a thoroughly disappointing performance, but then won the Pennsylvania Derby before posting a controversial front-running win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that survived a steward’s inquiry. Keen Ice’s win in the 2015 Travers Stakes will go down in lore as the only blemish on American Pharoah’s incredible 3-year-old Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning campaign; he went on to finish fourth behind Pharoah in the ’15 Classic and third in the 2016 Classic.
For all of that history, there had never been a Travers winner that went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year … until 2016, when Arrogate’s record-setting Travers score propelled him to superstardom. His elite status was confirmed by his win over California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and then amplified by his incredible races during early 2017 before he lost his best form over the summer. By the time the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar rolled around, it was another Bob Baffert-trained horse, Travers winner West Coast, who was on the upswing, and he ran gamely when third in the mile-and-a-quarter Classic while being no match for Gun Runner.
Other weekend stakes:
This weekend’s stakes slate also features a few other races that have made an impact on the Breeders’ Cup in recent years, starting with the $600,000 Forego Stakes. The Forego was first held in 1980, named after the mid-1970s superstar, and made its first impression on the Breeders’ Cup Sprint during 1986-’87, when Groovy won the Forego in both years and ran second as the odds-on favorite to Very Subtle in the ’87 Sprint at Hollywood Park. Two years later, Ogden Phipps homebred Dancing Spree was runner-up to Quick Call in the Forego but won the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a neck over the eventual Hall of Fame filly Safely Kept, who would be voted champion sprinter that year at the Eclipse Awards and win the Sprint in 1990. Rubiano, winner of the 1992 Forego, finished third as the favorite in that fall’s Sprint, but over the next 10 years no Forego winners went on to distinguish themselves at the Breeders’ Cup, although many ran.
Orientate had established a reputation as a solid, if inconsistent, stakes winner during 2001 and into 2002, but when shortened up for good by D. Wayne Lukas that summer he proceeded to win five consecutive stakes races to close out his career, his last two being the Forego and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. That was more than good enough to earn an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter.
Five years later, another dominant sprinter won both the Forego and Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the Bob Baffert-trained Midnight Lute. He won those races back-to-back en route to champion male sprinter honors in 2007, and the injury-plagued horse then came back to win the Sprint in 2008 in somewhat of a surprise before starting his stud career.
In 2010, Big Drama finished second to Here Comes Ben in the Forego and then won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. Private Zone, arguably one of the best sprinters in recent years, finished third in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, won the 2015 Forego Stakes, and then finished second in the ’15 Sprint. And the 2016 Forego winner A.P. Indian ran fourth in the Sprint but was elevated to third via runner-up Masochistic’s disqualification.
Meanwhile, there had been very little crossover between the Forego and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, until 2016. That’s when Tamarkuz, who had finished sixth in the 2015 Forego, returned to the Spa to try again and came in second behind A.P. Indian. The Shadwell Stable-owned son of Speightstown then finished second in the Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park before contesting a tough renewal of the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, where he defeated the likes of Gun Runner and Accelerate by 3 ½ lengths at 11.90-1 odds.
The 2017 Forego was won by 2016 TwinSpires Sprint winner Drefong, but that champion disappointed in his final career start when sixth in the 2017 TwinSpires Sprint at Del Mar. Mind Your Biscuits, who turned in a rare subpar performance in the 2017 Forego when sixth, rebounded to finish third in the TwinSpires Sprint. Awesome Slew, runner-up in the 2017 Forego to Drefong, finished third in the Las Vegas Dirt Mile at Del Mar.
The 2018 Forego had a large impact on the fall World Championships and subsequent happenings in the sport. Whitmore, one of the most consistent sprinters of the current era, blew through an opening along the rail and won the Forego going away over odds-on favorite City of Light. Both horses would return in the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, but contesting different races. Whitmore started in the Sprint, where he finished second behind Roy H. But City of Light was ready to take center stage in the Dirt Mile, and that he did to the tune of an overpowering 2 ¾-length win. The Michael McCarthy-trained son of Quality Road made his final start in the January 2019 Pegasus World Cup Invitational, and was even better when stretched out to 1 1/8 miles, besting a field that included champion older male and 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate by 5 ¾ lengths.
Two years ago, Mitole became the third horse to win both the Forego and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in the same year. He did so in dominant fashion, taking the Forego by three lengths and the Sprint at Santa Anita by 1 ¼ lengths. The Sprint was his final race before retiring, and he received the Eclipse Award as 2019’s champion sprinter to no one’s surprise. 2018 Forego winner Whitmore, third to Mitole in the ’19 Sprint, ran a disappointing seventh in the 2020 Forego but, as noted above, found redemption in the Sprint at Keeneland to earn his own Eclipse Award. He is scheduled to start in this year’s renewal.
The $400,000 Ballston Spa Stakes at Saratoga, a 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares, has sent several horses on to perform well in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, including Zagora, who won both races in 2012. Champion Lady Eli, winner of the 2014 Juvenile Fillies Turf and runner-up by a nose in the 2016 Filly and Mare Turf, won the Ballston Spa in 2017 and then finished seventh in the Filly and Mare Turf at Del Mar, her career finale. The $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes – previously the King’s Bishop Stakes until 2017 when it was renamed to honor the Hall of Fame trainer – is arguably the most prestigious race of the year for 3-year-olds that is shorter than one mile. The seven-furlong test has often served as a launching pad for speedy sophomore runners to test their elders in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and three horses have managed to win both in the same year: Squirtle Squirt in 2001, Runhappy in 2015, and Drefong in 2016. Additionally, 2011 King’s Bishop winner Caleb’s Posse won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.