Magic Wand (c) Frank Sorge/Horsephotos.com
Over the past six years, Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) winners have been either European shippers or Chad Brown trainees. The score is tied at 3-3, and Saturday’s edition will tip the balance.
Although Team Brown has strength in both quantity and quality, the Europeans counter with a few serious win contenders.
MAGIC WAND: Aidan O’Brien is overdue to win his first Filly & Mare Turf, and this Galileo half-sister to 2013 Irish Oaks (G1) heroine Chicquita (fifth versus males in the 2014 Turf [G1]) is well qualified to do the honors – as long as the ground isn’t too soft. That’s a concern with rain in the forecast putting us on weather watch all week.
After Magic Wand started out with two losses over a boggy Leopardstown, O’Brien wasted no more time in maidens and instead sent her straight to Chester for the May 9 Cheshire Oaks. Magic Wand appreciated the “good” turf so much that she broke her maiden in the classic trial, leading throughout in a 3 1/2-length decision. Stablemate Forever Together would have finished a lot closer but for a wretched traffic jam, and had to settle for overtaking Princess Yaiza for second.
The Oaks (G1) at Epsom served up a reversal of fortune. With the rain scuttling Magic Wand’s chances, Forever Together turned the tables to win handsomely, outstaying Godolphin’s Wild Illusion by a commanding 4 1/2 lengths. Magic Wand labored home fourth, unable to lift on the soft course.
At a sunny Royal Ascot, however, Magic Wand roared right back to form in the Ribblesdale (G2). Traveling like a dream in a prominent position, she stormed four lengths clear of Wild Illusion on good-to-firm, leaving stablemate Athena behind in a one-paced fourth.
Good-to-firm conditions in the Irish Oaks might have helped Magic Wand gain revenge on Forever Together, but she uncharacteristically failed to respond, and trudged home a subpar fifth as the 10-11 favorite. Then word came that Magic Wand was sick, a casualty of the virus that would wreck Ballydoyle’s midsummer.
O’Brien, speaking generally of his virus protocol, described how he didn’t want to push his horses as they recovered, but went very easy on them. Thus like many of her stablemates upon returning to action, Magic Wand was hardly cranked for the Yorkshire Oaks (G1). She set the pace, putting away Laurens, and didn’t hit the fitness wall until well down the stretch. In the circumstances, her fifth-place finish was creditable, four lengths adrift of Sea of Class (who would nearly catch Enable in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe [G1]), and only a couple of lengths off Coronet and Eziyra.
Magic Wand took the expected step forward in the Prix Vermeille (G1), the fastest of the three Arc trials on September 16 at ParisLongchamp. Quickening off the strong pace, she appeared to have made the winning move only to be cut down late by Godolphin’s Kitesurf. Magic Wand shortened up to 1 1/4 miles for the Prix de l’Opera (G1) on Arc Day, where she arguably should have been more forwardly placed to get the jump on Wild Illusion. Instead, Wild Illusion pounced from a more advantageous spot and Magic Wand came second.
Their rematch in the 1 3/8-mile Filly & Mare Turf is neatly positioned between their pet distances – Magic Wand has the upper hand at 1 1/2 miles, and Wild Illusion is a 1 1/4-mile specialist. Tactics and ground conditions promise to be decisive. If Magic Wand goes forward to make the most of her early speed and stamina, she’ll be as tough to peg back as she was at Chester. The more rain at Churchill, however, the less her chances.
WILD ILLUSION: Like last year’s Filly & Mare Turf heroine, Wuheida, Wild Illusion is a homebred daughter of Dubawi trained by Godolphin’s Charlie Appleby. In another point of commonality, Wild Illusion also captured the Prix Marcel Boussac (G1) at two. But her overall resume is much deeper than Wuheida’s, and she accordingly arrives as a more obvious threat than her 11-1 comrade was at Del Mar.
A front-running debut winner who looked stronger the farther she went at Yarmouth, Wild Illusion tried off-the-pace tactics in last fall’s Prix d’Aumale (G3) and placed third. A closer tracking trip was in order for the Boussac on Arc Day, and she drove home as a 25-1 longshot over favored Polydream (a leading contender in the Breeders’ Cup Mile [G1]) with Magical (Breeders’ Cup Turf [G1]) back in fourth.
Wild Illusion kicked off her classic campaign in the 1000 Guineas (G1), and after having the unenviable task of pressing the pace of Laurens, she was caught for finishing speed over the Rowley Mile and checked in fourth to the 66-1 shocker Billesdon Brook. That effort had Oaks prospect written all over it, so Wild Illusion advanced to Epsom as the 5-2 favorite. She ran her race in a fine second, but couldn’t keep up with Forever Together at the end of the searching 1 1/2 miles. It was a similar story in the aforementioned Ribblesdale, where Wild Illusion’s stamina again proved suspect as she was an honorable, if convincingly beaten, runner-up to Magic Wand.
The answer was to attack targets in the intermediate 10-furlong range, and Wild Illusion has prospered accordingly. In the Nassau (G1) at Glorious Goodwood, she controlled the pace to boss older foes, chief among them Pretty Polly (G1) winner Urban Fox, and enjoyed a freshening before picking up right where she left off in the aforementioned Opera.
Although this 1 3/8-mile trip is a shade longer than ideal, the flat, turning track should put it within Wild Illusion’s scope. She has an advantage in being adept on all types of ground. The rain in the forecast will be as welcome for her as it is unwelcome for Magic Wand.
The one caveat is that Wild Illusion’s major wins have come in races that set up perfectly for her. Obviously she played the essential role in carving out her winning trips – you don’t become a triple Group 1 winner through dumb luck. But the point is that the Breeders’ Cup could throw her a more challenging tactical curveball.
EZIYRA: If the Aga Khan homebred lacks a touch of brilliance, she more than makes up for it with rock-solid consistency and key formlines. Just her typical effort should land her somewhere in the top three, hopefully ending a lean spell in the Breeders’ Cup for Dermot Weld. He’s never had a Breeders’ Cup winner, and his last runner to place here was Brief Truce, third all the way back in the 1992 Mile.
By Teofilo and out of a half-sister to star stayers Estimate, Enzeli, and Ebadiya, Eziyra has compiled a record of 11-6-3-2 over three seasons of racing. At two, the well-regarded filly beat future O’Brien luminary Hydrangea in a Galway maiden, just missed in the Flame of Tara (G3), and then added her customary hood to help her settle better. In her first time in the headgear, she stayed on strongly to capture the C.L. & M.F. Weld Park S. (G3) (in honor of her trainer’s parents) by daylight.
Eziyra didn’t resurface until last summer, finishing second versus males in the King George V Cup at Leopardstown. Up in class for the Irish Oaks (G1), she had little chance of catching Enable (Turf) from far off the pace, but stayed on for third and beat top-class Coronet (fourth).
Although confined to Group 3 company in her two final outings as a sophomore, Eziyra justified favoritism in both. She was the last one off the bridle when kicking clear in the Give Thanks (G3) over older distaffers, and beat males, albeit in more workmanlike fashion, in the KPMG Enterprise (G3) on Irish Champions Weekend.
Eziyra has reached another level since returning from an 11-month absence this term. Her last-to-first rally over males in the August 9 Ballyroan (G3) was much more authoritative. The third-placer, O’Brien’s Yucatan, has since jetted down to Australia where he trounced the Herbert Power (G2) and now tops the Melbourne Cup (G1) market.
A fine return – last seen winning on @IrishChampsWknd, Eziyra is back with victory in the feature @GrenkeIreland Ballyroan Stakes at @LeopardstownRC. Treble for Dermot Weld and @declanmcdonogh pic.twitter.com/YAUY7wZAUE— At The Races (@AtTheRaces) August 9, 2018
Next tackling the Yorkshire Oaks, Eziyra made a stealthy move up the rail to accost Magic Wand, only to find herself outkicked by Sea of Class and relegated to third late by Coronet.
Eziyra successfully turned back in trip for the 1 1/4-mile Blandford (G2) during the second half of Irish Champions Weekend at the Curragh. Jockey Declan McDonogh rode a very clever race. Knowing she stays well past that distance, he placed her second early, and she was on the premises to take over as the leader crumbled. Eziyra then kept on too dourly for the useful pair of Who’s Steph and I’m So Fancy.
That shows she doesn’t want to give too much rope to the likes of Magic Wand and Wild Illusion on this course. But Eziyra is capable of upstaging them all and springing the upset, especially if it turns into a stamina-sapping slog on desperate ground.
ATHENA: Having lost her way since her stunning Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1), O’Brien’s second stringer is tough to read in her third stateside visit.
On the plus side, Athena has some smart pieces of form to fall back on – a good-looking second to Sea of Class in a May 19 Oaks trial at Newbury, her aforementioned fourth to Magic Wand and Wild Illusion in the Ribblesdale, and a third to Urban Fox and Forever Together in the Pretty Polly that set her up for her Belmont heroics.
The Camelot blueblood did not have a favorable trip in her next venture in the Beverly D. (G1) at Arlington, a premature move out wide on the backstretch likely contributing to her disappointing seventh. Her ensuing fourth to Roaring Lion (Classic [G1]) and Saxon Warrior in the Irish Champion (G1) may look better on paper than it actually was, since she didn’t have to pick up to finish ahead of three off-form rivals. Similarly, in her most recent eighth in the Opera, she never factored behind Wild Illusion and Magic Wand.
It’s possible that Athena is using those hidden efforts as a springboard to another breakout performance, but the alternative – that the Belmont Oaks was a perfect and unrepeatable scenario –is likelier. This smacks as more of a last chance to pad the resume for this descendant of Urban Sea, and relative of Sea the Stars and Galileo. A priceless broodmare prospect, Athena is a three-quarter sister to 2014 Irish Oaks victress Bracelet, and an “aunt” to Breeders’ Cup pre-entrants Just Wonderful (Juvenile Fillies Turf [G1]) and Lost Treasure (Turf Sprint [G1]).
PRINCESS YAIZA: Who would have imagined that the Dundalk all-weather performer who finished fifth to Mendelssohn (Classic) in the March 9 Patton, on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby, would progress into a Group 2 heroine taking her chance at the Breeders’ Cup?
Trainer Gavin Cromwell deserves great credit for getting Princess Yaiza here. Switching to turf and stepping up in trip after her Dundalk winter campaign, she’s competed honorably against some heavy hitters. Princess Yaiza finished third in the Salsabil to Mary Tudor (the future third in the Irish Oaks), third to Magic Wand in the Cheshire Oaks, and third to Sea of Class in the Abingdon, all at 1 1/4 miles.
Another stretch-out to 1 1/2 miles served her even better. Princess Yaiza missed by a neck to older male Nessun Dorma – at level weights (131 pounds) with that Willie Mullins dual-purpose performer – in a premier handicap at Galway. She stayed on relentlessly that day, but added cheekpieces for the September 18 Oyster over the same track and trip, and yielded grudgingly in second.
Princess Yaiza’s honesty was rewarded in the 12 1/2-furlong Prix de Royallieu (G2) over Arc weekend, when she kept responding to edge Palombe (an older filly who’d placed in Group 2s to the likes of Kitesurf and Marmelo) and Shahnaza.
As genuine a character as Princess Yaiza is, she’s liable to be outpaced going 1 3/8 miles at Churchill by this caliber of opposition. Very soft going would help her chances of sneaking into the lower rungs of the exotics.
SMART CHOICE: Argentine-bred but Peruvian-based, Smart Choice is coming out of the “Win and You’re In” Gran Premio Pamplona (G1) that has yet to have a significant impact on the Filly & Mare Turf. The transfer to Todd Pletcher is doubtful to enhance her prospects.
Formerly with Peru’s top trainer, Juan Suarez Villarroel, Smart Choice was runner-up in her stakes debut in the 2016 Gran Premio Nacional Augusto B. Leguia (G1) over 1 5/8 miles. Next she made her lone start outside of Monterrico in the 2017 Gran Premio Latinoamericano (G1), held that year on the Valparaiso turf, and the 41-1 longshot was outclassed in 13th.
Smart Choice rebounded by lowering her sights back home, but continued to look exposed when settling for minors in Group races. Fourth in the 2017 Pamplona to stablemate Birdie Gold (who went on to finish 12th in last year’s Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar), Smart Choice got up to deny sophomore filly La Divina in the June 24 renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge event.
In the process, Smart Choice emulated her champion half-sister, Patola, who won the 2011 Pamplona. Both are by Storm Cat stallions, Patola by High Yield and Smart Choice by Grand Reward. While a past Pamplona winner, two-time champion Ryans Charm, exceeded expectations in the 2016 Filly & Mare Turf by finishing sixth, Smart Choice does not figure to improve upon that result.
MAGICAL: O’Brien cross-entered here but reportedly intends to start her versus Enable and males in the Turf, her first preference.