2015 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Preview

The final set of Breeders' Cup preps has drawn to a close, but there is still plenty of classy racing going on between now and the Breeders' Cup at the end of the month.  Picks and Ponderings keeps it green this weekend, previewing a pair of nine-furlong turf stakes.  This preview will focus on the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (GI), the final top-class turf event of the year that is restricted to three-year-old fillies.  We also preview the Knickerbocker Stakes (GIII), a race for the older open-company set at Belmont.

This year marks the 32nd running of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup.  The race was run for the first time in 1984, when Queen Elizabeth II came out to Keeneland and presented the trophy to Sintra, who won the race contested in her honour.  The winners' circle in which she presented the trophy had been constructed for that very occasion.  For the first 49 years of Keeneland's history, there was no winners' circle on the grandstand side.  Winners' presentations were done on the track for most races, but on the infield for stakes races.  Both for security reasons, and to avoid the possibility of making the Queen traipse across a muddy track if it rained on the day of her race, Keeneland constructed a winners' circle for the inaugural running of this race.

This year's Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup features a field of nine, filled by invitation only, to compete for a purse of $500,000.  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.  The Pucker Up Stakes (GIII) at Arlington often feeds into the Queen Elizabeth II, and this year is no exception.  The top pair from the Pucker Up, MIZZ MONEY and RETURN TO GRACE, both got invitations in the mail.  Three fillies have swept both the Pucker Up and the Queen Elizabeth II: Ticker Tape (2004), Vacare (2006), and Hot Cha Cha (2009).  Those are not the only Arlington stakes winners to have made their mark in this race.  Both 1984 Arlington-Washington Lassie winner Contredance (1985) and 1997 Beverly D winner Memories of Silver (1996) also won the Queen Elizabeth II.


Hot Cha Cha draws away late to win the 2009 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup.

Selections are made for turf only.  Morning lines were not available at original publish time; updated October 8 to add morning lines.

Saturday, October 10

Race 9: Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, three-year-old fillies, one and one eighth miles over the turf, post time 5:30pm EDT

SENTIERO ITALIA has been the breakout star among east coast sophomore turf fillies.  Here she will likely be the favourite, but she also looks like the real deal.  After a debut this March at Gulfstream in which she went off at 22/1 and ran like it, she shipped up to New York for trainer Kieran McLaughlin and has won four of her five starts there.  The only race she lost, other than her debut, was the Belmont Oaks (GI).  She proved no Lady Eli, but who is?  She still finished a solid fourth, only 3/4 length out of second.  Other than that, it has been smooth sailing: a maiden win, an allowance win, and a pair of GII wins at Saratoga and Belmont.  The maiden win, as well as the Lake Placid (GII) and Sands Point (GII) wins, came at the same 1 1/8 mile trip as the Queen Elizabeth II.  The Sands Point, her first attempt over less-than-firm ground, resulted in an authoritative victory over the likes of BLOND ME and MISS TEMPLE CITY.  Expect to see SENTIERO ITALIA stalking close off of the frontrunning likes of MIZZ MONEY and FEATHERED, and expect her to roll late.  Even if the early pace ends up slow, that has proven no problem for her in the past, and shouldn't here.  Sometimes the best horse just wins, and that looks like SENTIERO ITALIA.

OLORDA looks like the most serious threat, since she is making all the right changes.  This German-bred has classsy European form in her back lines.  After breaking her maiden in Germany, she won the Prix Vanteaux (GIII - FR) at the same distance as the QEII, and followed that up with a third-place finish in the Prix Saint-Alary (GI - FR).  She then shipped stateside, and has raced once here.  She tried the Belmont Oaks (GI), but finished a well-beaten 11th.  She has been off in the ensuing three months.  Over that time, it has become clear that OLORDA is staying stateside.  She moves to the barn of Chad Brown; horses win 30% of the time first time out for Brown.  Also notable, given how often Brown's horses go off as chalk, is that first time for the barn is a positive-ROI situation.  She also gets a change to rider Irad Ortiz, Jr.: a winner 25% of the time with Brown over the last 60 days, and 63% in the money.  OLORDA adds Lasix for the first time (a 27% win proposition for Brown), and goes blinkers off.  The disappointing Belmont Oaks was OLORDA's only start with blinkers to date.  All in all, OLORDA stands out as the horse in this field who is most likely to take a big step forward from her last start.

Finally, MISS TEMPLE CITY appeals.  She makes her third start since her try at Ascot, in which she was a respectable fourth in the Coronation Stakes (GI - ENG) behind a trio of class European fillies in Ervedya, Found, and Lucida.  To date, that has been her only finish worse than third.  Though she has not won again since her return from Ascot, she has two on-the-board finishes at the same distance as the QEII, both behind SENTIERO ITALIA.  That third-place finish in the Sands Point (GII) came over good turf, and she also has a second-place finish over good Keeneland turf in the Appalachian (GIII) this past April.  Though she was beaten 2 1/2 lengths that day, the winner was Lady Eli.  MISS TEMPLE CITY adds Lasix for the first time, and gets a change to rider Drayden Van Dyke.  Van Dyke has ridden only twice so far this meet at Keeneland, but has a win and a third to show for it.  The third came over the grass, with Siding Spring in the Bourbon Stakes (GIII).  Though this will be MISS TEMPLE CITY's ninth start, it will be her first with Lasix; this move is a 25% winner for trainer Graham Motion, with a positive return.  She has enough upside to suggest improvement here, and is consistent enough that she should figure.

Selections:

#9 SENTIERO ITALIA (6/5)

#6 OLORDA (15/1)

#3 MISS TEMPLE CITY (5/1)

Longshot:  Mark Casse has been the hottest trainer on the Keeneland grounds.  Though #5 RETURN TO GRACE (15/1) will have to take a pretty considerable step forward to prevail here, there are a few suggestions (even beyond her conditioner's 12-5-1-1 record after four days of the meet) that his filly will be live.  Last out she won the Dueling Grounds Oaks at Kentucky Downs, beating a solid field at 1 5/16 miles.  She is one of only two in this field (the other being OLORDA) who is cutting back in distance.  In her only previous start at Keeneland, RETURN TO GRACE finished second over good turf in a maiden special weight at 1 1/16 miles.  She crossed the wire a length behind Robillard, a next-out winner as well, and RETURN TO GRACE herself won next out.  That maiden win came at 1 1/8 miles, the same distance as the QEII.  She also has a pair of graded stakes placings at the nine-furlong distance.  She was third behind Prado's Sweet Ride in the Regret (GIII), and closed to finish beaten just a nose by the forwardly placed MIZZ MONEY in the Pucker Up (GIII).  The solid second over good turf also suggests she can handle some give in the ground, helpful since Friday's forecast calls for some rain.  She also has pace versatility; though RETURN TO GRACE typically closes, she can run a solid race from a stalking spot as well.  All of these things combine to make this daughter of English Channel live at a price.

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