A Tale of an Empress and an Island

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The U.S. racing calendar is close to entering its annual lull leading up to the Breeders' Cup. But before top-class racing action goes on its brief hiatus, there are a couple of Grade 1 races to contest at Keeneland and Woodbine this week.

Let's dig into the entries and settle on our selections:

Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland on Saturday

Ten years ago, Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien pulled off a remarkable feat with a three-year-old filly named Together. First, he shipped her to Keeneland to face older rivals in the one-mile First Lady S. (G1), where she rallied gamely to finish second. Then O'Brien kept Together at Keeneland to contest the 1 1/8-mile Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup one week later, which she promptly won in comfortable fashion.

Will history repeat itself with O'Brien's sophomore filly #4 Empress Josephine in the Saturday's renewal of the Queen Elizabeth? It's certainly possible.

A beautifully bred daughter of Galileo out of multiple Group 1 winner Lillie Langtry, Empress Josephine has already proven her worth against elite competition in Europe, battling to victory in the Irish 1,000 Guineas (G1) during the spring. But Empress Josephine has also displayed promising form at Keeneland. Taking a page out of Together's book, Empress Josephine contested the First Lady last week and rallied gamely to finish third, beaten only one length in a somewhat slow early/fast late race won by the pacesetter.

With this encouraging stateside debut under her belt, Empress Josephine is eligible to come right back and produce a winning effort in the Queen Elizabeth. Notably, she'll add blinkers on Saturday, setting the stage for a more forwardly placed journey.

For second place, we'll favor #3 Shantisara. The versatile Chad Brown trainee dominated the 1 1/8-mile Pucker Up S. (G3) at Arlington Park with a sharp rally from off the pace, then came back to nab the 1 3/8-mile Jockey Club Oaks with a pace-pressing trip, suggesting Shantisara is capable of adapting to any pace scenario under high-percentage jockey Flavien Prat.

E. P. Taylor S. (G1) at Woodbine on Sunday

An excellent field has assembled for the E. P. Taylor, a 1 1/4-mile turf test for fillies and mares. All ten entrants are stakes winners, and many have won at the grade or group level.

There are some formidable names among the proven Woodbine campaigners. #2 Etoile, for example, won the 2020 E. P. Taylor by a hard-fought neck over #3 Court Return. Both remain in good form; Etoile enters off a runner-up effort in the 1 1/4-mile Dance Smartly S. (G2) behind #6 Mutamakina, while Court Return exits a second-place finish in the 1 1/8-mile Canadian S. (G2) behind the rapidly improving #10 La Dragontea.

There are also a couple of capable European raiders in the fray. #1 Waliyak arrives fresh off a victory in the 1 1/8-mile Prix Bertrand de Tarragon (G3) in France, while #9 Keyflower enters off four consecutive top-three finishers, including a win in the Prix Occitanie.

But both the locals and the internationals may be overshadowed in the E. P. Taylor by #8 Great Island. Conditioned by Chad Brown (renowned for his success training grass mares), Great Island is a talented, consistent, and improving daughter of Scat Daddy. The five-year-old mare hasn't missed the trifecta in eight starts, and her form lines this season just keep getting better.

Two starts back, Great Island was deceptively impressive in the 1 1/8-mile Matchmaker S. (G3) at Monmouth Park, finishing furiously into a modest pace to prevail by half a length. And Great Island ran just as well or better in the 1 3/8-mile Flower Bowl S. (G1) at Saratoga, last month, tracking the pace before settling for second place behind probable Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) favorite War Like Goddess.

Racing 1 3/8 miles in the Flower Bowl possibly stretched the limits of Great Island's stamina, but even still, she battled on gamely to edge stablemate My Sister Nat by a nose for the runner-up spot. This performance was flattered when My Sister Nat came right back to win the Waya S. (G3).

Cutting back to 1 1/4 miles for the E. P. Taylor should suit Great Island just fine, so we won't get too creative here. We'll count on Great Island to take home top honors and secure her first top-level win.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Grade 1 stakes this weekend?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.

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