DEL MAR, Calif. — Show time for Breeders’ Cup 2017, finally.
It took a long while for the Breeders’ Cup to reach the beach, as Del Mar track president Joe Harper acknowledged this week at the post draw.
“We’ve been looking to get this since 1984,” said Harper, referring to the first year of the Breeders’ Cup. “We had to build a new grandstand, new racing facilities, do a lot of work. Thirty-four years later, it’s here. And we’re going to have a great time.”
Yes, the fun is about to start. What happens next is up to the horses, including eight top fillies and mares in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff, race 9 on Friday. The Distaff follows the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf (race 6) Dirt Mile (race 7), and Juvenile Turf (race 8).
Stellar Wind and Elate are the key players in an evenly matched Distaff field. Like Del Mar, some waited a long time for a chance like Friday’s.
Stellar Wind had to wait another year for a fair shot in the Distaff. She finished second with a troubled trip in 2015, and she broke slowly and finished fourth in 2016.
This year, Stellar Wind has won all three of her starts, all Grade 1’s, to emerge as the country’s top older female. But there is unfinished business for the 5-2 Distaff favorite. Stellar Wind will be sold as a broodmare Tuesday. She has one final shot at the Distaff, and everything has gone to plan.
Trainer John Sadler skipped a final prep for Stellar Wind to bring her in fresh, as in 97-day fresh. The mare schooled repeatedly in the gate, trying to avoid the bad start that cost her one year ago.
“No stone unturned,” Sadler said. “But these races are always hard to win because you have so many great horses.”
Sadler is 0 for 39 in the Breeders’ Cup. It is a misleading stat. Only five started at 5-1 odds or less. Stellar Wind or Dirt Mile contender Accelerate would be Sadler’s first BC favorite.
As for Elate, trainer Bill Mott waited until summer for the 3-year-old to get it together. When she finally did, she exploded. Elate enters off two blowout wins in New York.
Other contenders include a pair of elite 3-year-olds — front-runner Paradise Woods and stretch-running Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman.
Two more 5-year-olds are contenders. Forever Unbridled won the Grade 1 Personal Ensign at Saratoga, and Romantic Vision upset the Spinster at Keeneland.
Outsiders include Champagne Room, whose $69.20 stunner in the 2016 Juvenile Fillies is a reminder that upsets happen. Mopotism is expected to be the longest shot the field.
Stellar Wind was purchased privately for $450,000 by Sadler and owners Kosta and Pete Hronis following a maiden romp in late 2014 at Laurel. She has never looked back.
For three years, Stellar Wind has ranked among the country’s top females, winning 10 races (six Grade 1’s) and $2,233,200 from 15 starts. The leading female earner by Curlin, Stellar Wind is entered in the Keeneland November breeding stock sale next week.
Stellar Wind’s main rivals in the Distaff are 3-year-olds Elate, Paradise Woods, and Abel Tasman.
Elate scored a smashing debut last fall, winning by more than 12 lengths. Even then, Mott and owner-breeders Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschenider figured she would be a work in progress. Elate lost her next four starts. Finally, the light bulb went on.
“Nothing really happened,” Mott said. “Other than she’s just a real monster of a filly, good-sized, still growing and maturing. She just probably wasn’t ready for the tougher competition early in the year.”
Later in the year, it has been a different story. Elate enters off two knockouts. She won the Grade 1 Alabama by more than five lengths and the Grade 1 Beldame by more than eight.
“Each race has been, at least visually, a bit of an improvement,” Mott said.
Elate, who would be Mott’s sixth Distaff winner, has trained super since arriving at Del Mar last week.
Paradise Woods, whose Santa Anita Oaks romp earned a 107 Beyer Speed Figure, is the speed of the Distaff. She enters off an easy win in the Grade 1 Zenyatta at Santa Anita. Richard Mandella is her trainer.
Abel Tasman, whose Kentucky Oaks was the first of her three Grade 1 wins this year, would give trainer Bob Baffert his first Distaff in his fifth attempt.
Forever Unbridled enters off a 73-day layoff, having won the Grade 1 Personal Ensign on Aug. 26 at Saratoga. Trained by Dallas Stewart, she finished third in the 2016 Distaff. It’s been a long wait for her, too.
Others face questions that include speed figures, class, and footing. Meanwhile, a longshot lurks. Champagne Room has trained super since winning her comeback. Is she good enough? It has been one year since her last graded win, a 33-1 upset in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. That is a long wait.
Finally, show time for Breeders’ Cup 2017.