The $2 million Distaff: North America’s senior race for fillies and mares
Here’s a (fairly obscure) quiz question for the Breeders’ Cup aficionado: what, in the 34-year history of the event, is significant about the Gerard Butler-trained Pachattack?
Okay, ‘significant’ might be pushing it a little, but the unheralded five-year-old is at least (slightly) noteworthy, because at Churchill Downs in 2011 she achieved something no other European has managed before or since when she finished third behind Royal Delta in what was then called the Ladies’ Classic and is now, thankfully, the Distaff once more. (Various Godolphin runners running for Saeed Bin Suroor don’t count as they hailed from the Dubai team’s New York-based US arm.)
That’s right. A mare who never won above Listed level in Britain is the sole visitor to make the top three in North America’s senior race for fillies and mares. Then again, you can almost count on the fingers of one hand those that have actually tried – Erin Bird and Crimplene were fourth for Peter Chapple-Hyam and Clive Brittain respectively, Rainbow View fifth (on All-Weather) for John Gosden.
Such a lack of interest, and a consequent absence of anything that might be reasonably construed as success, goes a long way to explaining precisely why the Breeders’ Cup Distaff has always seemed to receive precious little airplay in the UK. Most obviously, it is a dirt race, an apparent turnoff to a section of British fans brought up loving the lawn: even the Classic itself has to fight for its profile internationally when Europe’s superstars are involved on the turf. To some folk, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that green (doowah, doowah, doowah).
Which, frankly, has to be regarded as a massive shame, because the Distaff has to be one of my favourite races on the planet, having produced a series of memorably dramatic contests down the years, from Personal Ensign and the tragic Go For Wand to Zenyatta, Rosie Napravnik announcing her pregnancy and retiring on the spot after Untapable and Beholder versus Songbird, quite simply one of the greatest stretch duels I’ve ever seen. The Distaff has produced the record winning margin of any Cup race (Inside Information, 13 1/2 lengths) plus some of the event’s biggest shocks. Think One Dreamer (47-1) in 1994, Spain (55-1) in 2000 and Adoration (40-1) in 2003.
Enough of the history lesson – and see below if you’d like to relive a race or two – the $2 million Distaff, original title restored since 2013, now returns to its rightful place on the Saturday card after being virtually forgotten on Friday for a decade.
Moreover, if might just be unmissable – even to those who generally disdain the dirt – with the prospect of another clash of generations between the last two Kentucky Oaks winners in ABEL TASMAN and her three-year-old counterpart MONOMOY GIRL.
Anyone who saw last weekend’s battle between the latter and her old rival Midnight Bisou in the Cotillion Stakes at Parx in Philadelphia will be eager to witness the rematch. Monomoy Girl recorded her third verdict over Midnight Bisou by a neck – only for the stewards rightly to reverse the placings after the favourite wandered about in the stretch. Both fillies earned career-best speed figures of 101 on the Beyer scale, the numbers that are accorded close to scriptural status in US racing circles and appear on the Daily Racing Form’s racecards. That said, Midnight Bisou looks a dubious stayer to me.
Race Replay: Midnight Bisou is awarded victory over Monomoy Girl in the Cotillion at Parx.
Either way, they may have their work cut out handling the four-year-old Abel Tasman, bidding to go one better than 12 months ago when she went down by a half-length to Forever Unbridled at Del Mar. This, incidentally, is the filly whom the China Horse Club unceremoniously removed from former Newmarket-based trainer Simon Callaghan after a mix-up over her silks.
Her form has reached another level in the last 18 months with Bob Baffert, giving her a bit in hand of the young’uns using traditional handicapping methods: six-time Grade 1 winner Abel Tasman has a best Racing Post Rating of 122, for example, while Monomoy Girl has yet to better 115.
Last time out Abel Tasman just held the Bill Mott-trained Elate by a neck in a rough edition of last month’s Personal Ensign at Saratoga that resulted in another of those pulsating stretch drives in which this division seems to specialise. The winner’s career-topping Beyer that day was 105, but even those responsible have admitted it could have been much higher.
Race replay: Abel Tasman sees off Elate in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.
Both fillies may train up to the Breeders’ Cup. ‘Uncle Bob’ is set to run Abel Tasman in Sunday’s Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita – she’s it’s an odds-on Grade 1 chance, though Distaff-bound La Force is in career-best form – while Elate was due to run in next weekend’s Beldame before a setback that could her rule out of the Distaff.
Be that as it may, Abel Tasman – tactically versatile and proven at the Breeders’ Cup venue – seems to hold a clear edge over her potential rivals, also set to include hometown heroine Blue Prize, the ex-Argentine who has a number of victories at Churchill Downs to her name, Kentucky Oaks runner-up Wonder Gadot (who beat the males in a leg of the Canadian Triple Crown), plus Eskimo Kisses, a stunning six-length victress from off the pace in the Alabama at Saratoga. Then again, Monomoy Girl had beaten her out of sight more than once before then.
All in all, the Distaff yet again promises to be a cracker. But we probably shouldn’t hold our breath hoping for too many European contenders.
FIVE MOST MEMORABLE DISTAFFS
1988 PERSONAL ENSIGN (Churchill Downs)
With her unbeaten record on the line in the final race of a blemish-free career, Personal Ensign looked hopelessly beaten, sliding about on the slop behind Kentucky Derby-winning filly Winning Colors. She got there by a nose.
1990 BAYAKOA (Belmont Park)
Warning: this isn’t pleasant so please avoid if it is likely to upset you. Bayakoa’s brilliance in winning her second Distaff was overshadowed as the brilliant Go For Wand broke down in front of the stands on the most dramatic day in Breeders’ Cup history also featuring Dayjur and Royal Academy.
1995 INSIDE INFORMATION (Belmont Park)
Not only did the Shug McGaughey-trained filly break the stakes record, she won by the largest margin in BC history at 13 1.2 lengths. Mike Smith’s been around quite a while, hasn’t he?
2008 ZENYATTA (Santa Anita)
Talking of Mike Smith…okay, there was no Rachel Alexandra but one of the greatest female racehorses in the history of the sport produced a trademark effort, sitting last until two furlongs out before challenging five wide and winning with complete authority.
2016 BEHOLDER (Santa Anita)
The word ‘epic’ can often sound like a cliche but this truly was a race for the ages as Beholder emulated Goldikova with her third Breeders’ Cup victory, by touching off the gallant Songbird – three years her junior and hitherto unbeaten – in an utterly spine-tingling duel. Three times Beholder seemed to pass Songbird in the stretch; three times Songbird fought back. Another cliche is the phrase “neither horse deserved to lose”; you know what? Neither horse deserved to lose.
…and just in case you’ve forgotten, here’s PACHATTACK and her small slice of BC history in at Churchill Downs in 2011…
Nicholas Godfrey is on Stateside on At The Races on Saturday night where we’ll be showing a total of seven Group 1 contests from the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.