As the horse racing world comes down from two big weekends of Breeders' Cup preps, only two graded contests grace the landscape this weekend. Paul Mazur looked at the Knickerbocker Stakes (GIII), a nine-furlong race for the older turf runners at Belmont. Keeneland offers a nine-furlong grass test as well, but this one is restricted to an invited set of three-year-old fillies.
This year marks the 31st running of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, a race inaugurated in 1984 when the Queen herself visited Keeneland and presented a trophy to the winner. The initial edition was run on the dirt at 1 1/16 miles, but it was moved to the grass the next year. 1990 saw the distance increased to its current 1 1/8 miles. The race has been graded since 1986, and has been a Grade I since 1991. Dayatthespa, winner of last weekend's First Lady (GI) at Keeneland, won this race in 2012. Two Eclipse award winners won this race. Ryafan (1997) won Champion Grass Mare the same year. Perfect Sting (1999) won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf in 2000, and won Champion Grass Mare that same year. Several winners of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup have local racing connections, including 1984 Arlington-Washington Lassie winner Contredance (1985), 1997 Beverly D winner Memories of Silver (1996), 2004 Pucker Up winner Ticker Tape (2004), and 2009 Pucker Up winner Hot Cha Cha (2009).
Selections are made for turf only. Morning lines were not available at original publish time, but the piece was edited on October 9 to add morning lines.
Saturday, October 11
Keeneland Race 9: Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (GI), three-year-old fillies, one and one eighth miles on the turf, post time 5:13pm EDT
The last week has seen a series of defections from and additions to the QEII field. My Conquestadory had been invited, but was not working well, and has been retired. Euro Charline is out with an ankle injury, and Xcellence also declined. With the additions of late invitees Speed Seeker and Sistas Stroll to the field, nine sophomore fillies will head postward for this year's renewal of the race.
What the race lacks is early speed. No one in the field needs it, and only two in the field have shown much of it: Sea Queen and Speed Seeker. Even then, both have the capacity to rate if necessary. Sea Queen looks like a bit of a trap here: she keeps taking money, and can't seem to get it done in graded company. The return to Keeneland won't hurt, since she does have an allowance win over that grass with Irad Ortiz in the irons. Using her in undersides would make sense, as she does reliably hit the board. However, the other possible front-end horse, Speed Seeker, looks far more intriguing on top here. She has only started three times, but has shown the ability to succeed even when things don't go her way. In her maiden win she got the lead early, and drew off to win easily in hand. Two starts later, in the Ontario Colleen (GIII-CAN), she was slower out of the gate, and took up near the back approaching the far turn. She wove through horses like an old pro, and won going away. That was back in August, but she has been working well and frequently since. This will be her longest race to date, but she should be able to handle it; the distance did not appear to be her issue in the Lake George (GII) so much as trip, and she is half to a stakes winner at nine furlongs. Jockey James Graham, who particularly excels in grass routes, rides. Speed Seeker should be a nice price, and fits right in despite the class rise. Crown Queen may have initially drawn interest by being half to Royal Delta, but she is starting to make a name for herself over the green stuff. After two third-place finishes at two, she took a long rest, and resurfaced in June. She is three-for-three since. This daughter of Smart Strike has plenty of stamina for this race; she won the Lake Placid (GII) at this distance last out, and won an allowance at 1 3/16 miles against older two back. Her works since that Lake Placid win have been sharp. Pacewise, she has never gone from right on the lead, but was fairly close to the front last out before edging ahead late. She shouldn't be too far out of it here. Her speeds are strong for the field, and she gets jockey John Velazquez back from that last time out. Velazquez has been sparkling this Keeneland meet, with five wins in his first eleven starts -- including two of three on the grass. Finally, Ball Dancing looms large here. She won the Sands Point (GII) last out, in her first start on American shores. Though she is Kentucky-bred (by Exchange Rate out of the Silver Hawk mare Ball Gown), she started her career in France. She met some success, winning twice and coming in second in a Group III. Her two wins in France were at even longer distances than this. Her last out win, though, was right at this nine furlong distance. Between her two turf wins, one was on firm going and one was on soft going. With a chance of rain both Friday and Saturday, she will appreciate the give in the going if that rain does fall, but will not be left out in the cold if it goes away. The biggest drawback to Ball Dancing involves the pace. She tends to come from mid-pack or farther back, not great given the lack of early zip. Still, the fractions into which she charged in the Sands Point last out were not exceptionally fast, suggesting her class may just get her there again.
#3 SPEED SEEKER (12/1)
#8 CROWN QUEEN (4/1)
#6 BALL DANCING (9/2)
Longshot: There is rain in the forecast for Friday and Saturday, which means there is going to be give in the turf. As of Wednesday evening, there is a 50% chance of rain for both Friday and Saturday. The softer the turf is, the better #1 SISTAS STROLL (12/1) looks. That isn't to say she can't run on firm turf; in August, she came from a few lengths off the pace to win an allowance over the firm Del Mar grass against older company. Still, it was over the swampy Arlington turf last out that she made her mark. She won the Pucker Up Stakes (GIII) at this nine-furlong distance last out, over turf rated soft. She has the fitness and the tolerance to soldier through a swampy bog for nine furlongs, and ran close enough to the pace last out to suggest that she will not be badly compromised by the shortage of front-end zip in the race. The rail should be fine, as well; she broke her maiden from the rail in a field of eleven. Sistas Stroll will probably need to progress one more step to be right with this crowd, but there's no reason she shouldn't. She has put up a couple of nice works since that Pucker Up win, and last out wasn't such a monumental improvement over previous performance that she stands to bounce.
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