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'Challenge' dangles racing's big prize

The Breeders' Cup Challenge doesn't begin until July 28 at Saratoga Race Course, but that isn't stopping trainers from talking about the new format that will qualify up to 24 horses for the Oct. 26-27 Breeders' Cup with just one win.

"They're trying to ramp up some excitement for the Breeders' Cup program with this 'Win and You're In' concept instead of points," said trainer Rick Violette, who will run his talented turf horse, Summer Doldrums, in the $1 million Virginia Derby on Saturday at Colonial Downs. "It's probably a good thing. It creates some continuity, like going to the World Series.

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"And the horses who win the races on this list probably deserve to qualify and be there."

The challenge's 24 races are spread over 11 weeks at six tracks.

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Previously, to qualify for Breeders' Cup races, a horse had to accumulate enough points to rank among the top seven in graded stakes races during the first 10 months of the year. The remaining seven horses, in the maximum 14-horse field for each race, were determined by a panel of racing directors.

Beyond the winners of the 24 challenge races, the entrants for the 11 Breeders' Cup events this year will still be chosen via a point system and by a panel.

"No system will be perfect," said trainer Ron Ellis, who will run Buzzards Bay in the San Diego Handicap on Saturday. "I'm not a big fan, for instance, of the way they fill the [Kentucky] Derby based on earnings that includes money from the 2-year-old season.

"But the races they've chosen to include in this are races that have been very productive in producing Breeders' Cup contenders in the past. The horses that come out of these races are top quality and deserve to be very much in there."

Breeders' Cup president Greg Avioli said at a Tuesday news conference that the exciting part of the new program is how it could produce "a number of Cinderella horses" who might not qualify without winning one of the "Win and You're In" races.

Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park are not among the tracks in the program. Lou Raffetto, the Maryland Jockey Club president and chief operating officer, said the reason for that is simple.

"We have other urgent issues to worry about," Raffetto said. "We're cutting stakes as it is. We don't have the money to participate. We're hanging on and trying to do the best we can."

The Virginia Derby is not in the Breeders' Cup Challenge, but Summer Doldrums, one of 10 entries in the 1 1/4 -mile turf race Saturday, certainly will be a contender for the Breeders' Cup Turf race Oct. 27 if he continues on his current course. Summer Doldrums, the winner of the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct who was considered a Kentucky Derby contender before finishing fourth in the Wood Memorial, is on a hot streak. He won the Grade III, $750,000 Colonial Turf Cup last month. Summer Doldrums' main competition Saturday will be Laurel Futurity winner Strike a Deal and Kentucky Derby contender Circular Quay, the 5-2 morning-line favorite in his turf debut.

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NOTE -- Declan's Moon, the locally bred star as a 2-year-old in 2004 who has not done much since being injured early in his 3-year-old career, won his last start at Hollywood Park on July 5 in an optional claiming race. He will run next in the Grade I, $300,000 Bing Crosby Handicap over six furlongs at Del Mar on July 29. "We had a great meet at Hollywood," trainer Ron Ellis said. "But the highlight for me was Declan's Moon winning and pulling things back together for the first time." In May the gelding, who was 4-0 as a 2-year-old and a pre-Kentucky Derby favorite in 2005, was found to have a breathing problem that limits his capacity in one lung to 80 percent in "some stressful situations." "We're turning him into a late-running sprinter and delighted to find a running style he likes," said Ellis, who has worked to find an answer for the horse, who was 0-for-7 since dropping off the Derby trail. "I'm looking forward to seeing how he does in a few weeks." The win was the first by the son of Malibu Moon, who stood at Country Life Farm, since the 2005 Santa Catalina Stakes at the start of his 3-year-old season.sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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