by Dick Powell

Just like the weather, the series of Breeders’ Cup Challenge races is starting to heat up and will do so until racing arrives on the first Friday and Saturday of November at Churchill Downs. The Triple Crown is over and the attention meter is now tilted toward these races. Generous shipping stipends and entry rewards make them attractive to owners and trainers so, if it’s a choice between a divisional race that is a Challenge race and one that is not, the Challenge race makes far more sense.

So far, 24 Challenge races have been contested. The first eight and a total of 16 of the 24 were run outside of North America so far. There will be 85 Challenge races contested overall with 52 in North America and 33 outside, which reflects the international scope of the event.

Among the winners so far, MERCHANT NAVY was very impressive winning the Diamond Jubilee Stakes (Eng-G1) at Royal Ascot and would have been an exciting contender in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) but has been retired to stud in Australia. DISCO PARTNER is headed to the Turf Sprint after the New York-bred earned a berth defending his title in the Jaipur Stakes (G2) at Belmont on June 9.

PAVEL’s win in the Stephen Foster (G1) over the Churchill Downs main track gave him a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), and was important as it makes scheduling the rest of the season a lot easier.

Coming up this weekend at Belmont Park, the Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes (G2) will be run at seven furlongs on the main track and leads to the Breeders’ Cup TwinSpires Sprint (G1). The field of six is headed by millionaires LIMOUSINE LIBERAL and WHITMORE. Limousine Liberal was 11th in the Sprint in 2015 and came back the next year with a fifth-place finish. At the age of six, a win in the Belmont Sprint Championship would insure his participation and enable trainer Ben Colebrook to point for a single target.

Whitmore is a deep closer who does his best going six furlongs. He finished eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint last year at Del Mar after an awkward beginning, but in this spot gets the wide turns of Belmont Park to uncork his rally. A note for the future: Whitmore broke his maiden first time out as a two-year-old at Churchill Downs going six furlongs in 2015. He raced in traffic behind Limousine Liberal two starts back on Churchill’s sloppy track in a rough trip from post one going seven furlongs in a Grade 2 race. If he gets by this test, look for conditioner Ron Moquett to go light on his racing schedule heading toward the first Saturday of November.

Also entered in the Belmont Sprint Championship is EYE LUV LULU, who is the perfect horse for the “Win & You’re In” series. The New York-bred son of Pollard’s Vision is loaded with speed and, even at the age of seven, he is earning his best BRIS Speed ratings. Jason Servis is one of the hottest trainers in America these days and Eye Luv Lulu has seven wins on off tracks. Hey, you never know.

Coming up on July 29, the Haskell Invitational (G1) will be run at Monmouth Park, which serves as a barometer of where the three-year-olds are in the second half of the season leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Bing Crosby Stakes (G2) will be run at Del Mar one day earlier for sprinters and the 1 1/2-mile King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Eng-G1), scheduled for Ascot on July 28, will be a major supplier of horses heading toward the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).

On July 29 the Clement Hirsch Stakes (G1) will be contested at Del Mar on the main track and its winner will have an automatic berth to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1). Probably too quick for ABEL TASMAN to run back after her win in the Ogden Phipps Stakes (G1) but the race could draw UNIQUE BELLA and/or PARADISE WOODS.