The Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes (gr.1) is setting up as a terrific clash of the nation’s overwhelmingly best sophomore turf fillies. Of the eight 3-year-old entrants set to contest the 1 1/8 mile contest, six of them are graded stakes winners and three are grade 1 winners. The two fillies that have no graded stakes win to their records enter the Queen Elizabeth off runner up efforts in Grade 1 stakes races. Leading this impressive cast of fillies are Grade 1 winners Winter Memories and Summer Soiree. If ever there was a more powerful sophomore filly duo facing off on the turf in recent memory, I can’t think of one.
Winter Memories will undoubtedly be bet down as the heavy favorite by post time, but Summer Soiree will be a very strong second choice. Both fillies have racked up four wins in five start this year, and both won the first Grade 1 of their career in their most recent starts. The similarities stop there. Winter Memories possesses perhaps the most deadly turn of foot seen in the United States since Goldikova dismantled her third-consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr.1) last fall. She usually drops to the rear of the field, bides her time until finding a clear path in the stretch, and then unleashes an unearthly rally that propels her to the lead within a matter of moments. In her last start Winter Memories created a stunning moment of brilliance when she won the Garden City Stakes (gr.1) after encountering a world of trouble. Entering the stretch dead last, with nowhere to go behind a wall of horses, jockey Javier Castellano moved the El Prado filly into the clear just a few strides before the finish and the talented filly responded with an explosion that thrust her neck ahead at the wire. She will enter the Queen Elizabeth off just two works, but fitness will not be an issue, she is the class of this field.
Summer Soiree’s forte is speed, she wants the lead from the moment the gates spring open. This daughter of War Front started her year with a 9 ¾ length romp at Oaklawn Park in a 1 1/16 mile allowance race on the dirt, then followed that up with a powerful 10 ¾ length win in the 1 mile Grade 3 Bourbonette Oaks over Turfway Park’s synthetic surface. Less than two months later, Summer Soiree finished 10th in the Kentucky Oaks (gr.1) after setting the pace and fading in the stretch. Brought back in the 1 1/16 mile Boiling Springs Stakes (gr.3) on the Monmouth Park turf course, the Graham Motion trained filly again romped by 8 ½ lengths. Brought back two months later, Summer Soiree again set the pace in the 1 1/8 mile Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks, and just lasted for the win by a half length over fellow Queen Elizabeth entrants Star Billing, and Nereid. She enters off three works, and in typical War Front-offspring fashion, they are speedy, solid works, that will have this filly ready to once again run strong on the front end. She’ll be facing the toughest closer of her career in Winter Memories, which means she’ll have to run the race of a lifetime to win. The distance is 1 1/8 miles once again, so she will have to run better than she did in the Del Mar Oaks if she wants to hold on for the win this time.
When you look past the top two in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup Stakes one several names pop out from entry list; 2010Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr.1) winner More Than Real, Pucker Up Stakes w inner Marketing Mix, Del Mar Oaks runner-up Star Billing as well as Del Mar Oaks third place finisher Nereid, and Together, runner-up in the First Lady Stakes (gr.1) last weekend at Keeneland.
More Than Real has made two starts in North America in 2011, finishing third both times. She ran well in the 1 1/16 mile Lake George, but proved no match for Winter Memories when that one romped by more than four lengths. In her last start she once again took on Winter Memories in the Garden City Stakes (gr.1) and finished third after setting the pace into the stretch and running a very determined race to finish less than two lengths behind the winner. All things considered she ran a much better race in the Garden City and showed a different dimension by holding onto the lead for so long. She may be able to get a nice trip in the Queen Elizabether if she follows Summer Soiree’s lead and can mount a rally into the stretch. She’s improved in both her North American starts this year and I don’t see any reason why she won’t run another solid race.
Marketing Mix is the new girl on the block. She comes storming into the Queen Elizabeth off two straight victories in stakes races. On July 31st she captured the Wonder Where Stakes at Woodbine by 4 ¾ lengths and then moved on to Arlington where she rolled to victory by 3 ¼ lengths in the Grade 3 Pucker Up Stakes. This Medaglia d’Oro filly got a late start to her career, running her first race in March, breaking her maiden at second asking, and going winless in three starts until her current back-to-back victories. This is a filly improving with time, who has great form coming into this race. Her latest work was an excellent :46.80 four furlong breeze over Keeneland’s turf course. She is another who likes to be very close to the pace and could give More Than Real some company near the front end.
Star Billing began her career on March 18th at Santa Anita when she broke her maiden first time out by 2 ½ lengths. In her second start she captured the Grade 3 Senorita Stakes by 2 ¾ lengths over the likes of Cambina. Making the third start of her career in the Grade 2 Honeymoon Handicap Stakes, Star Billing finished second, missing the winner by just half a length. One month later she returned in the Grade 1 American Oaks Stakes and overcame a bobble at the start and a four wide navigation of the turn to finish just a head behind Nereid and Cambina who dead-heated for first. Again brought back after a month, Start Billing once again showed her class and talent when splitting horses at the top of the stretch and missing Sumer Soiree by half a length in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks. So to recap, this filly began her career by winning a Grade 3 race in her second start, and has now finished second in a Grade 2, and third and second in two consecutive Grade 1’s. He total losing margins in all three races adds up to no more than a length total. This is a rarely talented filly that could be ready any day to become a huge star, and never runs a bad race. She should only get better.
Nereid is as tough as they come out west. She started her year by breaking her maiden, winning an allowance race and finishing in a dead-heat with Cambina to become a Grade 1 winner in just her fourth lifetime start in the American Oaks Stakes. The Rock Hard Ten filly most recently finished third in the Del Mar Oaks, a nose behind Star Billing in second, and a half length behind the victorious Summer Soiree. The Queen Elizabeth will be the sixth start of her career which means there is still plenty of room for improvement for Nereid. She has fired off six straight works since the Del Mar Oaks and ran a 1:12.40 bullet six furlongs on October 2nd at Hollywood Park before turning in her most recent 1:14.40 breeze. She usually employs a pace-stalking run that will have her running behind the leaders and in a good position to run at the lead if she gets a clean trip.
Together has raced seven times this year and finished second four times, but has yet to win. The Galileo filly most recently was seen finishing 1 ½ lengths behind Never Retreat in the Grade 1 First Lady Stakes and is returning to the company of her own age group in the Queen Elizabeth. This will be her third start in North America and she makes a quick turnaround from her First Lady runner up on October 8th to contest the Queen Elizabeth, so no works are in the books. Fitness won’t be a problem, but winning could be.
Kathmanblu completes the line-up in the Queen Elizabeth Challenge Cup Stakes and will be looking for her first win since taking the Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr.3) on dirt February 19th. She finished dead last in the Garden City Stakes in her last start, but that effort sounds a whole lot worse than it really was, seeing as four lengths would cover the field front to back at the wire. She ran very rank in the early stages of the Garden City, placing herself much more forwardly than usual and expending a good deal of energy fighting jockey Jose Lezcano the minute they left the gate. The Bluegrass Cat filly gets a rider switch to Julien Leparoux, who has been white-hot at Keeneland this meet, in the Queen Elizabeth. She has posted two very nice five furlong works in preparation for this race, most recently going five furlongs in 1:01.40 and before that getting five furlongs in 1:00.80.
This field of eight fillies is an extremely deep and talented field, and one that has great potential to continue getting better. Winter Memories will be a strong favorite and looks poised to capture her second consecutive Grade 1 win, but the real contest will most likely be for second place money. Star Billing and Nereid both have excellent form coming into this race and have yet to run a bad race in their lives. When they hit the stretch, they come flying. Summer Soiree is going to be very hard pressed to hold off this bunch and probably will not get an unpressured lead with Marketing Mix, More Than Real and Kathmanblu close up. If she wants to win this one, she’ll have to do it conserving some energy early for a late run in the homestretch. Marketing Mix has never faced a field this strong but looks great on paper and will have an excellent shot at the lead if she runs close up. In the end I think this is Winter Memories all the way once again, but some very good fillies will be trying to beat her to the punch.