By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
The feature race on the
second weekend of the Keeneland fall meet is Saturday's renewal of the $600,000
Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1), a 1 1/8-mile turf test that annually draws
some of the best three-year-old grass fillies in the country.
Certainly the 2022 edition
has come up strong. Among the seven entrants are five graded or group stakes
winners, led by #6 McKulick. The
British-bred daughter of Frankel hasn't missed the trifecta in seven starts and
has proven her worth against tough competition in six consecutive graded
McKulick scored her
signature victory in the 1 1/4-mile Belmont Oaks (G1) during the summer at
Belmont Park, rallying sharply from midfield to beat next-out Saratoga Oaks
(G3) winner With the Moonlight by 1 3/4 lengths. The tables were turned when
McKulick ran second in the 1 3/16-mile Saratoga Oaks, but McKulick bounced
right back in the recent 1 3/8-mile Jockey Club Oaks (G3) at Belmont at the Big
A, rallying with determination to prevail by half a length.
Trainer Chad Brown has won
the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup four times overall, including three of the
last four editions, so McKulick figures to receive a lot of betting support.
The presence of three-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz adds to the
But here's the problem:
McKulick has done her best work running 1 1/4 miles and farther. She's lost her
last four starts racing 1 3/16 miles or less, so cutting back to 1 1/8 miles
for the Queen Elizabeth II is at least a little bit of a question mark.
That's why I'm tempted to
side with the other Brown trainee, #2
Gina Romantica. At first glance, Gina Romantica might seem unappealing
since she's one of the two entrants without a graded win to her credit. But the
daughter of Into Mischief enters in improving form and may outrun expectations.
Gina Romantica began her
career with two victories from four starts on dirt. Starting off on the main
track only made sense, considering Gina Romantica is a half-sibling to Santa
Anita H. (G1) winner Gift Box and Prioress S. (G2) heroine Stonetastic. But
Gina Romantica missed the trifecta in two stakes attempts on dirt and seemed to
hit a ceiling for her potential over the surface.
The good news is, Gina Romantica
thrived when switching to turf for the one-mile Riskaverse S. at Saratoga,
launching a powerful homestretch rally to get up and defeat next-out Pebbles S.
(G3) winner Faith in Humanity by 1 1/4 lengths.
Gina Romantica also
contested the Pebbles and ran a deceptively good race in defeat. Racing wide
and off the pace as Faith in Humanity escaped with an easy lead through
fractions of :24.13, :49.55, and 1:13.65, Gina Romantica had every excuse to
come up short down the homestretch. But Gina Romantica nearly got the job done anyway,
running her final quarter-mile in approximately :22.30 to rally and finish
second by half a length.
In the Queen Elizabeth II
Challenge Cup, Gina Romantica retains the services of high-percentage jockey
Flavien Prat, a 25% winner on turf. The field doesn't feature much pace on
paper, but if Gina Romantica works out a ground-saving trip from post two, the
acceleration she displayed in the Pebbles can put her in the hunt for victory
down the homestretch.
Beyond the Chad Brown trainees,
we have to respect the chances of #7
Paris Peacock. The consistent Irish-bred filly has come to hand nicely in
her last two starts at Gowran Park in Ireland, breaking her maiden in the 1
3/16-mile Hurry Harriet S. before coming back to win the Denny Cordell Lavarack
& Lanwades Stud Fillies & Mares S. (G3) over the same distance. Trainer
Jessica Harrington appears to have a talented and progressing filly in her stable,
so Paris Peacock has upside for an even stronger performance in the Queen
Elizabeth II Challenge Cup.
We'll also give a shout-out
to #1 California Angel as a live
longshot. The daughter of California Chrome unleashed a big rally to win the
Jessamine S. (G2) at Keeneland as a juvenile, and she recently returned from a
six-month break to finish third in the 1 5/16-mile Dueling Grounds Oaks over
the tricky European-style turf course at Kentucky Downs. If California Angel
steps forward while returning to Keeneland for her second start off the layoff,
she can battle for a top-three finish.
1st: Gina Romantica
3rd: Paris Peacock
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup?
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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.