Who Will Win the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup?

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 stakes.

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 appeal.

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
2nd: McKulick
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.

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