Part Three in our ongoing series.
Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed parts one and two of this series because now that the basics are (mostly) covered, you will (hopefully) be better equipped to understand racing talk. Hopefully… This time, we move on to discuss some of the major races the US offers. In no way will this be a complete list of the major races – there are far too many to possibly cover all of them – but at least we can talk about some of them. Now, to begin.
Because two-year-olds typically need time to get their feet wet and get used to the business of racing, the grade one races begin in the fall, with several options for two-year-olds to get a taste of the highest level of competition. At several of the major racetracks, there exist two identical races at the grade one level for two-year-olds: one that is restricted to fillies, and one that is for both colts and fillies. Remember, there are no races restricted to just male horses, but it is unusual for fillies to face the colts as a two-year-old. These races include:
The Hopeful Stakes, run at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York, is a seven-furlong race run in September each year, on a dirt surface. It is the first grade one race for two-year-olds, and its fillies-only counterpart is the Spinaway Stakes. The inaugural running of the Hopeful Stakes was in 1904, won by the filly Tanya – who went on to win the next year’s Belmont Stakes – and was in 2016 won by Practical Joke. Something to note: the Hopeful Stakes has produced more than a dozen winners of the Belmont Stakes and multiple winners of the Kentucky Derby. The Spinaway Stakes had its inaugural running in 1881, and is a key race on the road to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (to be discussed in the upcoming “Horse Racing for Beginners Part Four”); the winner gets an automatic place in the starting gate of that race. Interestingly enough, the 2016 edition was won in a dead heat by a pair of half-sisters, Sweet Loretta and Pretty City Dancer, both of whom were sired by Tapit.
The Breeders’ Futurity Stakes and the fillies-only version, the Alcibiades Stakes, are run at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, in October annually. The races are run at one and one-sixteenth miles on a dirt surface and are qualifying races for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies races. The Breeders’ Futurity Stakes was first run in 1910; the Alcibiades Stakes was first run in 1952. The 2016 editions of the races were won by Classic Empire and Dancing Rags.
For three-year-old dirt and distance runners (arguably the category that gets the most media attention), the first half of the year focuses on the Triple Crown series, which consists of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. There is no official fillies-only version of the Triple Crown; efforts have been made to create a consistent version, but no configuration has yet stuck. There is, however, a fillies-only version of the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, which is run the day before the Derby. After the Triple Crown series, there several more races that are limited to three-year-olds, but by the summer many three-year-olds begin competing against older horses in the lead-up to the Breeders’ Cup Championships (to be discussed in the upcoming “Horse Racing for Beginners Part Four”).
In order to compete in the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, horses must compete in designated prep races in order to become eligible for a place in the starting gate. Horses earn a certain number of points for finishing in the top four placings in the designated races, and the horses with the most points gain spots in the starting gate. The points system is new; prior to 2013, the start list was based on graded stakes earnings. The Road to the Kentucky Derby series and the Road to the Kentucky Oaks series both start with certain two-year-old races in late September, and continues until April, with later races being worth more points. Stay tuned for articles designated specifically to the Triple Crown series, the Road to the Kentucky Derby, the Road to the Kentucky Oaks, and the Kentucky Oaks. The major races limited to three-year-olds that run between the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Championships include, but are not limited to:
The Travers Stakes, run at Saratoga Race Course in August, is a 1 ¼ mile race on dirt sometimes known as the Midsummer Derby. It is one of the last Grade 1 races designated specifically for three-year-olds. The Travers has produced some notable results in recent years, including a runaway victory by the then-unknown Arrogate in his first stakes appearance last year, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s heartbreaking defeat by Keen Ice in the 2015 running, and the first official dead heat finish in 2012 between Alpha and Golden Ticket.
The Alabama Stakes, like the Travers, is run at Saratoga in August. The race is for three-year-old fillies only and is run at a distance of 1 ¼ miles over a dirt surface. The 2016 Alabama was won by Songbird, who later in the year lost by a bare nose to Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on her way to claiming the Eclipse Award for three-year-old filly. In 2011, the brilliant and much-missed Royal Delta was victorious.
Races for three-year-olds and up are scattered between April and the end of the year, with the exception being the Pegasus World Cup in January, the inaugural running of which was this year. Races for three-year-olds and up include:
The Carter Handicap, a sprint race of seven furlongs, is held at Aqueduct Racetrack in April. Although the race is open to three-year-olds, no three-year-old has won the race since Tumiga in 1967. The race holds the distinction of being the only Thoroughbred race in the U.S. to have been won in a triple dead heat. In 1944, no distance separated Brownie, Wait a Bit, and Bossuet in the finish photo.
The Metropolitan Handicap, or “Met Mile,” is held on the same day as the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, at a distance of one mile over dirt. No three-year-old has won the race since Honour and Glory in 1996; the 2016 running was won by Frosted.
The Arlington Million and its filly counterpart, the Beverly D. Stakes, are run at Arlington Park over the turf course. The Arlington Million is run at 1 ¼ miles, and the Beverly D. Stakes is run at 1 3/16 miles, and both are qualifying races for the Breeders’ Cup. The 2016 editions were won by Mondialiste and Sea Calisi, respectively.
The Zenyatta Stakes, renamed in 2012 from its former name the Lady’s Secret Stakes, is a dirt race run at 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita Park in September. The race was renamed the Zenyatta Stakes in honor of the mare who won it three years in a row, between 2008 and 2010. Since the name change, another great racemare, Beholder, has duplicated Zenyatta’s feat, winning the race in three consecutive years between 2013 and 2015.
There are many more major races for three-year-olds and up, but for now, we will move on to a couple of the races for four-year-olds and up. Keep in mind that I am just skimming the surface here; each racing category (dirt sprinters, dirt distance horses, turf distance horses, et cetera) has their own series of races. Without further ado…
The Santa Anita Handicap, run on dirt at 1 ¼ miles, is one of the best-known races for older horses. It is run at Santa Anita Park every March and has been run since 1935. The Santa Anita Handicap was one of the major races featured in the movie Seabiscuit, about the horse by the same name. Seabiscuit lost by small margins in his first two attempts in the race but then bounced back from an almost career-ending injury to win the race in his third attempt in 1940. Recently, Mike Smith won the race three years in a row, in 2013 and 2014 with Game on Dude and in 2015 with Shared Belief.
The Apple Blossom Handicap is run at Oaklawn Park in April, at a distance of 1 1/16 miles over a dirt surface. In 2010, the conditions of the race were changed in an attempt to draw the great racemares, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, into a proposed invitational race, with the main attraction being the two top mares facing each other for the first time. The connections of both mares initially agreed, but Rachel Alexandra’s connections withdrew her shortly before the race, leaving Zenyatta to cruise to victory – her second win in the race. Another great racemare, Azeri, won the race three years in a row between 2002 and 2004, a remarkable feat.
Now, in this article, I chose to focus on Grade 1 races, but there are a number of other important races that have a lower status, and more important Grade 1 races that I have not covered. Keep reading for more articles on important races, profiles of some of the great horses, and much more. Until next time.