09/21/2010 11:36AM

Queen Elizabeth II Stakes: Prep for Mile or Classic?

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Conventional wisdom has it that the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, which will be run at Ascot on Saturday, is the most important European trial for the Breeders' Cup Mile. Both races are run at that distance, and timingwise the QEII is perfectly scheduled, coming five to seven weeks before the Mile.
But that is not the case on two counts. First, the most informative European prep for the Mile is Deauville's Prix Jacques Le Marois. Second, in recent years the Queen Elizabeth II has emerged as a more important prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic than the Mile.
That may be the case again this year as the defending QEII titleholder Rip Van Winkle could opt for the Classic just as he did last year after his Ascot heroics. Of course, it is difficult to predict which way his trainer Aidan O'Brien will go, especially before the QEII is run. In keeping all options open, Rip Van Winkle's run at Ascot on Saturday must be seen as a prep for both the Mile and the Classic. Depending on how he performs and what other horses O'Brien has lined up for those two races. "Rip", whom O'Brien defines as "a miler who stays a mile and a quarter," was only tenth in last year's Classic on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface, but European horses have done well historically on the Churchill Downs dirt.
Coolmore likes to have a runner in the Classic, as it enhances the breeding value of any European horse that can finish in the first three. At this stage, Coolmore has Fame and Glory penciled in for the Turf, and a number of possibilities for the Mile, among them Rip Van Winkle, Steinbeck and perhaps even Starspangledbanner, the sprinter who won a Group 1 mile in his native Australia. For the Classic, Coolmore must be consideraing Rip Van Winkle and the lightly raced Await the Dawn, a Giant's Causeway colt out of a mare by Dixieland Band who won the 1 1/4-mile, Group 3 Kilternan Stakes by 8 lengths at Leopardstown on Sept. 4.
Steinbeck is scheduled to join Rip Van Winkle in the the QEII lineup on Saturday along with French 2000 Guineas and Prix Jacques Le Marois winner Makfi, who is pointing to the Mile, and Irish 2000 Guineas, St. James''s Palace and Sussex Stakes winner Canford Cliffs, who is not under consideration for the Mile or any other Cup race.
Nothing will be certain about any of their Breeders' Cup plans until after the the race, but it might be revealing to see which way previous QEII runners went and how they fared in their Cup races.
No Queen Elizabeth II Stakes winner has ever won the Breeders' Cup Mile. Eight have tried and all have failed. In 1985 Shadeed finished fourth in the Mile. In 1987 Milligram was thirteenth. In 1989 Warning was sixth. In 1990 Markofdistinction was seventh. Bigstone was sixth in 1993. Mark of Esteem was seventh in 1996, and Desert Prince fourteenth in 1998, since when no QEII winner has even tried the Mile.
There is a rather simple reason for their failures. The QEII is run on the one-turn mile course at Ascot which is all uphill for the first 5 furlongs. This has the effect of turning the race into a stamina contest more reminiscent of a 9-furlong race in America. Generally speaking, it is nice to see a European horse prepping for the Mile honed for speed. The QEII does not offer that opportunity.
Goldikova was honed for speed last year when she used the 7-furlong Prix de la Foret as her Mile prep. She didn't win the race but in finishing a close third she set herself up perfectly for a fast-run American mile. The two-time defending Breeders' Cup Mile champ will use the Foret as her prep once again this year at Longchamp on Oct. 3.
Three horses have vaulted from second-place finishes to win the Mile, most notably Miesque in 1987. She was followed by Barathea in 1994 and Ridgewood Pearl a year later. Miesque was a filly for whom a mile was her optimum distance and the QEII probably proved too "long" for her. A year later she used the less testing Prix du Moulin de Longchamp as her Mile prep despite the fact that it came two months before the Mile.
The Queen Elizabeth II Stakes was not used as a prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic until 2000. That year Aidan O'Brien sent his QEII runner-up Giant's Causeway to the Classic at Churchill Downs. The son of Storm Cat and Mariah's Storm had already won three Group 1 races going 1 1/4 miles on turf and might have won the Classic had not Michael Kinane gotten fouled up in changing whip hands in mid-stretch. As it was, Giant's Causeway finished a neck second to Tiznow and has become a grand success standing at stud for Coolmore in Kentucky.
O'Brien tried the same trick with QEII runner-up Hawk Wing in 2002, but the 1 1/4-mile Eclipse Stakes winner could only manage seventh in the Classic behind Volponi at Arlington Park.
The Queen Elizabeth II as a Classic trial blossomed in 2008 at Santa Anita when the QEII one-two, Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator filled the same two places in the Classic. They may well have been taking advantage of the synthetic surface at Santa Anita, one that has proved more amenable to turf horses than to dirt horses, but the fact remains that over the last ten years, QEII runners in the Classic have a record of one win and two seconds from five starts. During the same period QEII runners have a record of two seconds from six starts in the Mile. Both of those runners-up were trained by O'Brien, Antonius Pius in 2004 and Excellent Art in 2007.
European-trained horses have a good record in Classics run at Churchill Downs since 1998 when Swain was an unlucky thrid behind Awesome Again and Silver Charm, followed by the equally unlucky second of Giant's Causeway two years later. Rest assured that the Coolmore braintrust will be sifting through the result of Saturday's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes for any possible evidence that might suggest victory in the Classic.