Will new program boost international competition at Churchill, Epsom, and Ascot?

December 12th, 2023

Fans of international horse racing have cause to celebrate. American horses have been competing abroad with increasing frequency over the last dozen years, and the trend may expand in 2024.

Churchill Downs announced in a press release on Tuesday morning that they’ve partnered with the British Jockey Club and Ascot Racecourse in England to create a series of opportunities for horses in the U.S. and Europe to receive automatic entries and travel stipends to compete internationally.

Four races held at Churchill during Kentucky Derby (G1) week are part of the series:

  • The winner of the 1 1/8-mile Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1) will receive a berth to compete in either the one-mile Queen Anne (G1) or the 1 1/4-mile Prince of Wales’s (G1), both held in June at Royal Ascot.
  • The winner of the 5 1/2-furlong Twin Spires Turf Sprint (G2) will receive a berth to compete in the five-furlong King Charles III (G1)—formerly known as the King’s Stand—in June at Royal Ascot.
  • The winner of the 1 1/16-mile American Turf (G2) will receive a berth to compete in the historic 1 1/2-mile Derby (G1) at Epsom Downs in June.
  • The winner of the 1 1/16-mile Edgewood (G2) will receive a berth to compete in the 1 1/2-mile Oaks (G1) at Epsom Downs in June.

On the other end of the spectrum, runners from Europe will receive invitations to compete in a pair of rich stateside prizes:

  • One runner apiece from the Prince of Wales’s and the Queen Anne will receive berths to compete in the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Million (G1) in August at Colonial Downs, a Churchill Downs Inc. track.
  • A runner from the Falmouth (G1) at Newmarket in July will receive a berth to compete in the 1 3/16-mile Beverly D. (G1) in August at Colonial Downs.

The introduction of this program will hopefully trigger an increase in international participation on both sides of the pond. The 2023 Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic winner, Up to the Mark, developed into a three-time Grade 1 winner who wrapped up his season with a close second against strong international competition in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). One of the horses finishing behind Up to the Mark at the Breeders’ Cup was Mostahdaf, winner of the 2023 Prince of Wales’s, so a case can be made that Up to the Mark would have been competitive at Royal Ascot. If he'd had an invitation to compete abroad, perhaps he would have made the trip.

The fees-paid nature of this program may help offset the challenges of competing internationally, shifting the risk vs. reward equation to encourage greater participation. The Derby and the Oaks are fiercely competitive and nearly half a mile longer than the American Turf and Edgewood, so historically the winners at Churchill Downs have opted to stay home for shorter races like the 1 1/4-mile Belmont Derby (G1) and Belmont Oaks (G1) at Belmont Park in July. Now that there's little to lose from a monetary perspective, perhaps we'll see American Turf and Edgewood winners start taking aim at Epsom instead.

The program could also boost European participation in the Arlington Million and Beverly D. For most of their history, the Arlington Million and Beverly D. took place at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago. Shipping horses from Europe to Chicago was straightforward, and the two races were frequently won by international raiders.

The task of shipping horses from Europe to Colonial Downs involves a more complex journey. The races were held at Colonial Downs for the first time in 2023, and only Romagna Mia (third in the Beverly D.) made the trip from abroad. Now, with automatic entries and travel stipends in play, there's a greater chance we'll see talented Prince of Wales’s, Queen Anne, and Falmouth participants turn up at Colonial Downs.

In many respects, the new program is similar to the long-running Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, which likewise offers incentives for horses to travel internationally. We've already seen how winning a fees-paid Breeders' Cup Challenge Series race can prompt European runners to take a shot at the Breeders' Cup rather than stay at home.

The Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby program implemented by Churchill Downs has been similarly successful. The multi-race series is geared toward encouraging horses from Japan to compete in the Kentucky Derby, and since launching in late 2016 the series has produced Kentucky Derby participants Master Fencer (2019), Crown's Pride (2022), and Derma Sotogake (2023).

It's safe to say the partnership between Churchill Downs, the British Jockey Club, and Ascot adds a new layer of intrigue to the spring and summer racing calendars in the U.S. and England.