The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series for 2018 will be formally announced on Wednesday, but Breeders’ Cup and Ascot Racecourse whet our appetite with a revelation Monday: four races from the Royal meeting will be accorded “Win and You’re In” status.
The Prince of Wales’s (G1) already has a natural tie-in to the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), a relationship that will be strengthened with the 1 1/4-mile test for older horses joining the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series. While Fantastic Light (2001) won both races the same year, Highland Reel (2017) captured the Prince of Wales’s as the reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf champion, and last year’s Prince of Wales’s third-placer, Ulysses, was the likely Turf favorite before his injury withdrawal. Another reigning Turf winner, Found, just missed in the 2016 Royal Ascot feature. And as an additional high-profile case in recent years, The Fugue placed in the 2013 Prince of Wales’s before her heartbreak in the Turf at the hands of Magician, but gained sweet revenge back at the Royal meeting (and defeated Treve too) in 2014. The Prince of Wales’s will be the first of two Turf “Win and You’re In” events at Ascot, with the July 28 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) a fixture of the Challenge Series since 2011.
The Queen Anne (G1), held down the straight mile, likewise has a long-established bond with the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). Goldikova won the Queen Anne (2010) the year she turned her Mile three-peat, and the French celebrity placed in both races in 2011. Although you have to go back to Barathea (1994) to find another who accomplished the double in the same season, Tepin famously garnered the Queen Anne (2016) as the reigning Mile champion. And Queen Anne competitors are liable to make the trip to the Breeders’ Cup, from Dansili, narrowly beaten in both in 2000, to Ribchester, last summer’s Queen Anne hero who was fifth in his Del Mar swan song.
The Diamond Jubilee (G1) has yet to develop that strong a linkage with the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1), so it will be intriguing to see if the “Win and You’re In” perks increase the allure. Horses who thrive over the stiff six furlongs down Ascot’s straight generally wouldn’t go out of their way for a mad-dash American sprint around a turn – especially when the host course makes it into a flat five-furlong scramble. A case in point is Del Mar last November. The internationals who shipped for the Turf Sprint had all competed in the five-furlong King’s Stand (G1) at Royal Ascot, not the Diamond Jubilee.
A few have tried the Jubilee and Turf Sprint. Significantly, their best results have come down the hill at Santa Anita, which is also the longest Turf Sprint configuration at about 6 1/2 furlongs. Wesley Ward’s duo of Cannonball (who placed in both in 2009) and Undrafted (the 2015 Jubilee winner whose top Turf Sprint finish was a third in 2014) have come closest. Godolphin’s Diabolical, twice unplaced in the Jubilee, was a bang-up second in the inaugural Turf Sprint in 2008. Also notable in this category as an outlier was Aidan O’Brien’s Starpangledbanner, the 2010 Jubilee hero who came over for the 2011 Turf Sprint only after his subfertile season at stud.
Churchill will stage the Turf Sprint over 5 1/2 furlongs, perhaps enough extra yardage to give European connections a reason to think twice about coming. Yet the turning American conditions aside, another factor is the oft-heard desire to keep sprinters fresh ahead of the next major target.
With British Champions Day smack in the middle of October, chances are the Diamond Jubilee winner would be more apt to chase the British Champions Sprint (G1) pot – being proven over the same course and distance. Then would you be in a hurry to ship across the pond and wheel back on a relatively short turnaround for the Breeders’ Cup? After all, there’s also the attractive Hong Kong Sprint (G1) offering better spacing in December.
In contrast, the Norfolk (G2) has great potential as a “Win and You’re In” for the newly minted Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint. As a five-furlong dash, the Norfolk showcases the speediest, most precocious two-year-olds. Horses of that profile typically don’t have classic aspirations, so connections won’t have to do the cost-benefit analysis of how a Breeders’ Cup tilt could affect long-term goals. (That risk-versus-reward comes into play with the Juvenile Turf [G1] and Juvenile Fillies Turf [G1], which is why the leading European classic prospects often don’t come.) Many of these types reach their peak at two, giving all the more incentive to maximize their earning capacity. And if they do have scope to train on, the Breeders’ Cup is still a worthwhile venture as a juvenile finale. The five-furlong specialists will end up facing older horses next season, and they’ll endure that trial by fire until maturity, so why not go for the big prize now? And those who may have the capacity for six won’t have to be cranked until the Commonwealth Cup (G1) during the Royal meeting, meaning a better timetable than the classic hopefuls having to be primed earlier for a Guineas.
Fans in the United States will be able to watch the four Challenge races during NBC Sports Group’s live coverage of Royal Ascot. The Queen Anne serves as the meeting’s opener on Tuesday, June 19. The Prince of Wales’s is the Wednesday highlight on June 20. The Norfolk kicks off the action on Thursday, June 21, and the Diamond Jubilee is the main attraction on the concluding Saturday, June 22.
Craig Fravel, Breeders’ Cup President and CEO, commented on the addition of the Royal Ascot races:
“There is nothing quite like the excellence, tradition and prestige of the Royal Ascot meeting, and we are so proud and delighted that the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, Queen Anne, Norfolk and the Diamond Jubilee will be a part of the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Challenge series as we continue to encourage international participation for the World Championships. We thank our partners at Ascot for working with us in accomplishing this goal, and look forward to the outstanding coverage from the NBC Sports Group of these fixtures, and extensive coverage of the Royal Ascot races in June.”
Nick Smith, Ascot’s Director of Racing and Communications, offered his thoughts:
“We’re delighted to be participating in the Breeders’ Cup ‘Win & You’re In’ programme with races from Royal Ascot for the first time. These are pivotal race meets in our respective jurisdictions and natural targets for the very best racehorses in the world. It’s particularly pleasing to be involved from the start with the development of the new Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint. It’ll provide an excellent new opportunity for European juveniles.
“Recent years have seen numerous Ascot winners successful at the Breeders’ Cup, and it was wonderful to see Tepin perform the feat in reverse in 2015/16, especially being our first year of the hugely important NBC arrangement.”
Consisting of more than 80 graded/group stakes around the world, the Breeders’ Cup Challenge awards the race winners automatic berths, including fees paid, for the associated Breeders’ Cup events. This year’s Breeders’ Cup at Churchill will be held November 2-3.