In recent years, we’ve been treated to some truly memorable renewals of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I), and the 2018 edition at Churchill Downs is shaping up to be yet another terrific race.
With a prospective field that’s packed with champions, Grade 1 winners, and intriguing up-and-comers, the Distaff should be among the highlights of this year’s Breeders’ Cup. Here’s how I rank the top contenders….
Last year’s champion three-year-old filly just missed in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Distaff and signaled her readiness for another big season by dominating the Ogden Phipps Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park last month, drawing off powerfully under a hand ride to win by 7 ½ lengths. You can make a case that she might be at her very best in extended one-turn races, and her tendency to make premature mid-race moves can be problematic at times, but her raw talent and affinity for Churchill Downs (where she won the 2017 Kentucky Oaks) stamps her as the early favorite for the Distaff, at least in my mind.
Like Abel Tasman, Unique Bella can be a bit over-eager in her races (particularly if she breaks slowly from the starting gate), but when she runs professionally it’s tough for anyone to beat her. How many horses can throw down a :44.96 half-mile in a two-turn route race and still run away to victory, like Unique Bella did when winning the Beholder Mile Stakes (gr. I) in June? Interestingly, she and Abel Tasman are both regularly ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, which could present Smith with a difficult decision if both fillies make it to the Distaff in top form.
This year’s Kentucky Oaks winner is a neck away from being unbeaten in eight starts and already has three Grade 1 wins under her belt this year, including a decisive two-length score in Belmont’s Acorn Stakes (gr. I) last month. She’s also recorded three victories at Churchill Downs, so she shouldn’t have any issues with the racing surface come Breeders’ Cup time. If she keeps progressing with experience and maturity, she could be a force to reckon with come November.
Winner of the Alabama Stakes (gr. I) and Beldame Stakes (gr. I) last year, Elate hasn’t run since finishing fourth as the favorite in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, but a tricky trip that day may have compromised her chances. She’s scheduled to return to action on Saturday in the Delaware Handicap (gr. II) at Delaware Park, and if she runs to expectations she could reemerge as one of the main players in the Distaff division.
The Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) winner could only finish third with a very wide trip in the Kentucky Oaks, but she rebounded in eye-catching fashion to win the Mother Goose Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park by six lengths under a hand ride. She’s yet another top-class filly regularly ridden by Mike Smith.
Like Monomoy Girl, Blue Prize has a strong record at Churchill Downs, where she won the Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. II) with a sharp late rally in her most recent start. The Argentinean-bred mare is gradually picking up steam while still flying under the radar a bit, but I believe she has the talent to win at the Grade 1 level this year and could be a legitimate Breeders’ Cup contender come November.
After hanging in the homestretch (and possibly costing herself victory) in several big races this year, including the Kentucky Oaks, Wonder Gadot added blinkers for the Queen’s Plate Stakes at Woodbine and looked like a completely different filly, powering away with authority to win by 4 ¾ lengths. The waters will get deeper down the road, but if blinkers continue to make a difference, Wonder Gadot has a chance to wind up among the best three-year-old fillies in North America this year.
Although she could only finish a distant third behind Abel Tasman in the Ogden Phipps, this four-time graded stakes winner did upset Unique Bella in the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) in April, proving that she can compete at the highest level. She’ll face off against Elate in the Delaware Handicap (gr. II) this Saturday.
Red Ruby has quietly compiled a solid record this year in second-tier graded stakes races for three-year-old fillies, winning the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes (gr. II) by nearly five lengths before rising to a new level in the Delaware Oaks (gr. III), which she won by a stunning 13 lengths with a 104 Beyer speed figure. Perhaps that particular effort was a fluke… or perhaps we’re looking at a rising star with a bright future.
It’s been six months since Farrell last won a race, but the four-time graded stakes winner loves Churchill Downs and was second in both the La Troienne Stakes (gr. I) and the Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. II) during the Churchill sprint meet, so regardless of how she fares throughout the summer, she could be an interesting longshot player if she returns to Churchill for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.