Last year's Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) was one of the most thrilling races in the history of the World Championships, as champions Beholder and Songbird raced as one through the Santa Anita Park stretch before the older Beholder prevailed by a nose. Although both great distaffers have been retired, this year's edition of the $2 million race carries intrigue and excitement, as nine fillies and mares prepare to go nine furlongs.
The gravitational pull of Beholder and Songbird was so great that many may not realize that the third- and fourth-place finishers from a year ago are set to face off in the 2017 Distaff at Del Mar. Forever Unbridled checked in just 1 1/4 lengths behind the top pair, and got her day in the sun in late August, when she closed down the middle of the Saratoga Race Course stretch and outfinished Songbird in the Personal Ensign Stakes (G1) in what wound up being Songbird's final start.
Forever Unbridled is undefeated in her two races this year, as she has been patiently handled by trainer Dallas Stewart following the removal of a bone chip after last year's Distaff. The mid-pack runner is a multiple grade 1 winner who must work out the right trip, but if she does, she is good enough to win.
"We were looking at the Pegasus (World Cup Invitational Stakes, grade 1) early this year for her before we discovered the bone chip," said her owner/breeder Charles Fipke, in a show of how much her connections think of the Unbridled's Song mare. "Depending on how she does in the Distaff, we might make a stab for it again. She's a good filly and needs to get in a position where she gets out without being stopped."
Most eyes figure to be on Stellar Wind, the fourth-place finisher in last year's Distaff. She famously defeated Beholder in the Clement L. Hirsch and Zenyatta stakes (both G1) immediately preceding last year's Distaff, but failed to fire on the big day.
Trainer John Sadler has made it clear he believes the energy Stellar Wind needed to expend in the two prior races compromised her chances in the Distaff, and he has handled Hronis Racing's 5-year-old daughter of Curlin accordingly this season. She has started just three times, and has a three-month gap between her victory in the 2017 Hirsch and the upcoming Distaff. She obviously likes Del Mar, where she is undefeated in three starts, but this will be a heavy lift given her layoff. Stellar Wind will be running in her third straight Distaff. She finished second, just a neck behind Stopchargingmaria, two years ago.
Paradise Woods is one of several talented 3-year-olds set to challenge for the Distaff crown. She opened eyes in her third start, when she took the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) by 11 3/4 lengths in April. However, after she set a hot pace in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1), the daughter of Union Rags faltered and finished well back in the field. What was supposed to be an easy landing in the Aug. 27 Torrey Pines Stakes (G3) turned into anything but, when she stumbled leaving the gate and again finished far in arrears.
Trainer Richard Mandella, who earned the victory with Beholder last year, got the ship righted in the Sept. 30 Zenyatta, when Paradise Woods, facing older, launched to an early lead and cruised home by 5 1/4 lengths.
"It's been an exciting journey with this filly," Mandella said. "She's very good, but we hit a couple of foul balls with her. We straightened it back out and got her over the fence last time. She came out of the Zenyatta good, and I'm excited about the Breeders' Cup."
Elate is another sophomore who has flashed extreme talent and is peaking at the right time. After she missed by a head to Abel Tasman in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) in July, Elate (by Medaglia d'Oro ) returned in the Alabama Stakes (G1) and crushed a good field by 5 1/2 lengths for owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider and trainer Bill Mott. Proving that was no fluke, she came back against older fillies and mares in the Sept. 30 Beldame Stakes (G1) and drew away to win by 8 1/4 lengths.
Abel Tasman should not be dismissed, although her most recent effort in the Cotillion Stakes (G1) was compromised by a slow start and eventual runner-up finish. The Kentucky Oaks winner took the Acorn (G1) and Coaching Club American Oaks in her next two starts, and she has a win over the Del Mar surface. Bob Baffert trains the Quality Road filly for China Horse Club and breeder Clearsky Farms.
The forgotten filly in the Distaff is Champagne Room, who gained glory a year ago, when she won the 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) at 33-1. A bone chip sent her to the bench after a mediocre third in the Las Virgenes Stakes (G2) and she returned in late September for a frontrunning score in the Remington Park Oaks.
Romantic Vision invades California off an impressive score in the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes (G1), which marked the second consecutive graded victory for the G. Watts Humphrey Jr. homebred daughter of Lemon Drop Kid .
Del Mar, Friday, November 03, 2017, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Champagne Room (KY) Mario Gutierrez 121 Peter Eurton 15/1 2 2Stellar Wind (VA) Victor Espinoza 124 John W. Sadler 5/2 3 3Mopotism (KY) Lanfranco Dettori 121 Doug F. O'Neill 30/1 4 4Abel Tasman (KY) Mike E. Smith 121 Bob Baffert 4/1 5 5Elate (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 121 William I. Mott 3/1 6 6Forever Unbridled (KY) John R. Velazquez 124 Dallas Stewart 4/1 7 7Paradise Woods (KY) Flavien Prat 121 Richard E. Mandella 9/2 8 8Romantic Vision (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 124 George R. Arnold, II 15/1
Del Mar, Friday, November 03, 2017, Race 9