International spotlight: York's Ebor Festival offers Breeders' Cup spots

August 21st, 2023

While it’s Travers Week stateside, the British racing scene is focused on the Ebor Festival at York from Wednesday through Saturday. A trio of Breeders’ Cup Challenge events will highlight the first three days, with star power in the Juddmonte International (G1) on Wednesday’s opening day.

Aidan O’Brien’s standout Paddington will put his winning streak on the line in the about 1 5/16-mile contest. If only three others have signed on, Shadwell’s revelation Mostahdaf could pose his toughest opponent so far.

The Juddmonte International offers a fees-paid berth to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), but the Thursday and Friday features are more related to their Breeders’ Cup races. The Yorkshire Oaks (G1) is a “Win and You’re In” for the Filly & Mare Turf (G1), and the Nunthorpe (G1) plays that role for the Turf Sprint (G1).

All of the Group 1s are scheduled as the fourth race, at 10:35 a.m. (ET), on their respective days. So is the eponymous Ebor H. on Saturday, preceded by the City of York (G2) that will have Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) implications.

Here’s an overview of Wednesday’s Group action, along with early looks at how the rest of the week is shaping up, pending final declarations.

Wednesday: Juddmonte International (G1), WAYI for BC Classic (G1)

Although Paddington has evoked comparisons with Ballydoyle legend Giant’s Causeway, he’ll need to add this test to cement the parallel. But he has achieved something that the “Iron Horse” did not, namely a classic victory in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1). Since then, Paddington has emulated Giant’s Causeway by winning the St. James’s Palace (G1) at Royal Ascot, stretching out to beat elders in the Eclipse (G1), and reverting in trip to defeat older milers in the Sussex (G1).

O’Brien lauded Paddington for having the ability to accelerate on top of his high cruising speed, something that distinguishes him from the preeminent battler Giant’s Causeway. That quality will be put to the test at York, where he probably won’t have the same circumstantial advantages as in his past two.

In the Eclipse, Paddington saw off a high-class older filly in Emily Upjohn, but she’s at her best going much further than 1 1/4 miles. Between giving him the weight concession due to a three-year-old, and competing at an inadequate trip, Emily Upjohn did well to go down by just a half-length. In the Sussex, Paddington had no difficulty coping with the terribly soft ground that sank his top rival, Inspiral.

The Juddmonte is fascinating precisely because it will furnish a better gauge of Paddington’s historical stature. He’ll be meeting a couple of classy elders in their element as well.

Mostahdaf comes off a career high in the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot, earning a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Ironically a stablemate of Emily Upjohn and Inspiral’s from the John and Thady Gosden yard, Mostahdaf underscored that better ground, around this trip, brings out the best in him. The son of Frankel proved as much with a spectacular win in the Neom Turf Cup (G3) on Saudi Cup Day, and backed it up versus elite company last time.

The Gosdens also pitch Frankel’s daughter Nashwa into the equation. Winner of last year’s French Oaks (G1) and Nassau (G1) in this vicinity, she endured a losing skid until dropping down to a mile in the July 14 Falmouth (G1), where she bolted up by five lengths. Nashwa exits a third in her Nassau title defense in a Goodwood slog that didn’t play to her strengths. A tactical Juddmonte on better ground, though, is a different ball game, making her intriguing at a price.

The longshot of the quartet is the other sophomore, The Foxes, who boasts a course-and-distance win in the Dante (G2). A non-staying fifth in the Derby (G1) at Epsom, and a troubled runner-up in the Belmont Derby (G1) last out, the Andrew Balding pupil needs a career-best to spring the upset.

Acomb (G3) and Great Voltigeur (G2) on undercard

The Juddmonte undercard includes the Acomb (G3) for juveniles (second race at 9:25 a.m. ET) and the Great Voltigeur (G2) for three-year-old St Leger (G1) aspirants (third race at 10 a.m. ET). Ballydoyle has prime contenders in both.

In the seven-furlong Acomb, Naas maiden winner Edwardian steps up in both class and trip for O’Brien. The No Nay Never half-brother to Belmont Oaks (G1) scorer Aspen Grove meets a few proven at the distance, including debut winners Cogitate (at Newbury) and Loose Cannon (over this course), and Salisbury romper Hot Fuss, previously fifth in the Chesham S. Favorite Ballymount Boy brings the established form, as the runner-up in the Richmond (G2) to Vandeek, who just won Sunday’s Prix Morny (G1).

In the Great Voltigeur, Ballydoyle’s Continuous will try to inflict a first career defeat on the Gosdens’ Gregory. Continuous, a very encouraging third in the Dante here in his reappearance, was most recently runner-up to King of Steel in the King Edward VII (G2) in his first attempt at this 1 1/2-mile distance. That could be the key pointer, considering that Gregory is shortening up from his victory in the 1 3/4-mile Queen’s Vase (G2). Godolphin’s Castle Way makes a more subtle cutback after his narrow verdict in the 1 5/8-mile Bahrain Trophy (G3). Not to be overlooked are the respective third and fourth from the Gordon (G3), Canberra Legend and Artistic Star, who could be a sleeper for the crafty Ralph Beckett.

Thursday: Yorkshire Oaks (G1), WAYI for BC F&M Turf (G1)

All eyes are on the rematch between the top two from the Irish Oaks (G1), Savethelastdance and Bluestocking. But both fillies are trying older distaffers for the first time, including such top-class operators as Free Wind and Al Husn.

Savethelastdance’s wins have all come on rain-softened going, which she isn’t expected to get here. On good-to-firm in the Oaks (G1) at Epsom, the O’Brien filly settled for second as the odds-on favorite. That could smack of vulnerability at York, although this straightforward, galloping course figures to suit her better than Epsom. Conversely, stablemate Warm Heart hit top form in the Ribblesdale (G2) at a very quick Royal Ascot before floundering in fifth in the Irish Oaks. Stamina remains a slight question mark for Warm Heart at this level, but conditions would help.

The Beckett-trained Bluestocking has improved since placing to Warm Heart twice, a near-miss in the Fillies’ Trial S. at Newbury and a troubled third in the Ribblesdale. The Juddmonte homebred could be poised for a breakthrough. Fellow sophomore Novakai just broke through in her first attempt at 1 1/2 miles in the Aphrodite S. at Newmarket. The Karl Burke pupil has been mixing it up in good company, finishing second in last fall’s Fillies’ Mile (G1) and runner-up to future Epsom heroine Soul Sister in the Musidora (G3) here.

Multiple Group 2 heroine Free Wind, who sports a win over the course in the Middleton (G2) at a trip shorter than optimal, has been out of luck since. Favored versus males in Royal Ascot’s Hardwicke (G2), the Gosden mare found the ground too firm and checked in fifth. She had the opposite extreme to contend with in the Lillie Langtry (G2) at a boggy Goodwood, and her top weight of 137 pounds was an exacerbating factor as she labored in a remote fourth. The Yorkshire Oaks could be the proverbially happy medium.

The progressive Al Husn has contributed to Shadwell’s banner year by toppling some marquee names of late. After flooring Nashwa in the Hoppings S. at Newcastle, the Roger Varian runner beat her again on the big stage in the Nassau. Al Husn wrecked the narrative of a showdown between Nashwa and French filly Blue Rose Cen, who wound up third and fourth, respectively. She’s earned the right to experiment with 1 1/2 miles, as a daughter of Dubawi and a Sea the Stars mare.

Stay Alert and Rosscarbery, both a tad unlucky as the second and fourth in the Pretty Polly (G1) at the Curragh, add more depth. Rosscarbery has typically run well at the top level, notably just missing in last summer’s Prix Jean Romanet (G1), and high-percentage trainer Paddy Twomey has mentioned his interest in the Breeders’ Cup. Stay Alert, still lightly raced for Hughie Morrison, was a Group 3 winner over males last term. Poptronic and Sea Silk Road were separated by only a neck when serving up the exacta in the Lancashire Oaks (G2).

Earlier, the Lowther (G2) (second race at 9:25 a.m. ET) has attracted talented two-year-old fillies led by Queen Mary (G2) near-misser Relief Rally, who since blew apart the Weatherbys Super Sprint. A sixth furlong should be no problem for her, but O’Brien’s smashing maiden winner Cherry Blossom might be. Queen Mary third Beautiful Diamond, recent Goodwood conditions romper Flora of Bermuda, and Godolphin’s Duchess of Cambridge (G2) runner-up Star of Mystery are others in the mix. Richard Fahey’s Pretty Crystal has longshot potential after her second in the Princess Margaret (G3).

Friday: Nunthorpe (G1), WAYI for BC Turf Sprint (G1)

The five-furlong Nunthorpe presents a clash of generations, from defending champion Highfield Princess to sophomores like Bradsell and highly-regarded two-year-old Big Evs. Bradsell upset Highfield Princess in the King’s Stand (G1), but the older mare was still racing into peak form, and the younger colt also controversially herded her down the Ascot course. Highfield Princess was back in business winning the King George (G2) at Glorious Goodwood, suggesting that Bradsell might find it tougher to confirm the form here.

Big Evs won at both festivals, capturing the Windsor Castle S. at an unheralded 20-1 before backing it up at much shorter odds in the Molecomb (G3). Supplemented to the Nunthorpe, the Mick Appleby trainee aims to make the most of his substantial weight concession. He gets in with a feathery 115 pounds, compared to 139 for the older males, 137 for Bradsell, and 136 for Highfield Princess. While no juvenile has won since Kingsgate Native (2007), fillies Acapulco (2015) and The Platinum Queen (2022) placed second.

Smart three-year-old filly Dramatised could bounce back from a clunker in the King’s Stand, and her contemporary Queen Me has a stealthy look. Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee (G1) shocker Khaadem; Twilight Calls, second and fourth in the past two runnings of the King’s Stand; and up-and-coming Regional are others of interest.

The undercard includes the Lonsdale Cup (G2) for stayers (second race at 9:25 a.m. ET) and the Gimcrack (G2) for juveniles (third race at 10 a.m. ET). The Lonsdale Cup may feature a title defense by front-runner extraordinaire Quickthorn, who just achieved the same feat in the Goodwood Cup (G1). The 16 1/2-furlong marathon could offer a Goodwood Cup do-over for several who never got into it there, especially Courage Mon Ami and Coltrane, previously the top two from Royal Ascot’s Gold Cup (G1). Topping the early market for the Gimcrack is Kylian, exiting a third to Big Evs at Goodwood.

Saturday: City of York (G2)

From the U.S. perspective, the City of York (third race at 10 a.m. ET) has greater relevance than the time-honored Ebor, which holds more potential for the Melbourne Cup (G1) as a 1 3/4-mile handicap.

Indeed, the seven-furlong City of York has had significant bearing on the Breeders’ Cup Mile in recent years. York winners Expert Eye (2018) and Space Blues (2021) both went on to Mile glory, while Kinross (2022) was a bang-up third in last year’s edition at Keeneland. Kinross is set for a repeat bid on Saturday, with a few possible Breeders’ Cup candidates in opposition.

The high-class mare Sacred, a specialist at this trip, just missed by a neck going six furlongs in the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee. Quick ground is a prerequisite for the William Haggas trainee, so Santa Anita could be on the radar for the “niece” of champion Lady Eli.

Sophomore Isaac Shelby has gone agonizingly close in two majors, in the French 2000 Guineas (G1) and most recently in the Lennox (G2), where he was just denied by Kinross. The enigmatic pair of Al Suhail and Mutasaabeq can also fire in the right circumstances.