Will a European Win the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup?

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

If one reviews the list of horses who have won recent editions of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland, one might conclude that horses based in North America hold a significant edge over European raiders.

After all, North American runners have dominated this race for decades. Over the past 25 years, only Together (2011) has shipped in from Europe to win the Queen Elizabeth II, even though European raiders are not uncommon in this 1 1/8-mile turf test for three-year-old fillies. And Together enjoyed a prep run against older rivals in Keeneland's First Lady (G1) one week prior to the Queen Elizabeth II.

But this simplistic analysis misses some important context: in recent years at least, European challengers have pretty much run to their odds. Paris Peacock finished sixth as the fourth choice in 2022. Nicest and Cloudy Dawn finished fourth and seventh as double-digit longshots in 2021. Castle Lady ran second as the second choice in 2019. Mission Impassible finished second as the fourth choice in 2018, the same year Nyaleti ran third as the third choice. Unforgetable Filly finished tenth as a 34-1 longshot in 2017, and Hawksmoor ran third as the fourth choice in 2016.

All this is a roundabout way of saying, it's rare for a European raider as talented and accomplished as #4 Mawj (2-1) to enter the Queen Elizabeth II. That's why when Mawj starts as the favorite in Saturday's renewal of the race, I'm confident she'll deliver victory for Europe.

A Godolphin homebred conditioned by three-time Breeders' Cup-winning trainer Saeed bin Suroor, Mawj showed promise as a juvenile last season; at Newmarket, she won the six-furlong Duchess of Cambridge (G2) and finished a good third in the Cheveley Park (G1).

But Mawj has upped her game to a new level in 2023. She spent the winter at Meydan in Dubai, where she won the Jumeirah Fillies Classic and the Jumeirah Fillies Guineas. Then she returned to Newmarket for the historic one-mile 1000 Guineas (G1) and displayed unwavering tenacity to beat Tahiyra by half a length, with the remaining 18 runners another 7 1/2 lengths behind.

Tahiyra, it should be noted, is a four-time Group 1 winner with a 5-for-6 lifetime record. Her lone defeat came in the 1000 Guineas, and since then she's won the Irish 1,000 Guineas (G1), the Coronation (G1), and the Matron (G1).

The form of Mawj's 1000 Guineas victory stands out like a neon sign in the Queen Elizabeth II field. She hasn't run since (bin Suroor told Keeneland that a "little chest infection" kept her from competing at Royal Ascot and prompted a break), but the Queen Elizabeth II should be the perfect spot for Mawj to get back on track. Mawj is held in such high regard that she's using the Queen Elizabeth II as a springboard to either the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) or Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1), so a winning performance should be in the offing this Saturday.

Beyond Mawj, there are several other talented Europeans or former Europeans in the Queen Elizabeth II field. The contingent is so strong that a trifecta or superfecta sweep might be on the horizon.

First and foremost is #2 Elusive Princess (3-1), runner-up in the 2,000-meter Prix Saint-Alary (G1) during the spring at ParisLongchamp. She made her North American debut in the Saratoga Oaks (G3) two months ago and charged boldly down the homestretch to win by 3 1/4 lengths.

The problem is, all of Elusive Princess's best efforts have come over soft and very soft ground; the only time she missed the exacta came when fifth over good-to-soft ground in the Prix de Diane (G1) at Chantilly. The caliber of competition may have been the bigger factor that day, but there's no guarantee Elusive Princess will find soft ground at Keeneland, so unless the skies open up on Saturday she'll have to prove she can bring her A-game over firmer turf than she usually encounters.

#6 Lindy (6-1) and #7 Sounds of Heaven (8-1) are arguably more appealing alternatives. Lindy finished eighth in the Prix de Diane, but previously achieved a classic placing when second behind Prix de Diane winner Blue Rose Cen in the 1,600-meter Poule d'Essai des Pouliches (G1) at ParisLongchamp. Lindy kicked off her North American campaign with a comfortable $80,000 allowance optional claiming victory racing one mile over good turf at Kentucky Downs last month, suggesting she'll be a factor in the Queen Elizabeth II.

As for Sounds of Heaven, she struggled over soft turf in the Prix Rothschild (G1) at Deauville last time out, finishing a distant sixth. But two starts back, she ran third by one length against Tahiyra in the Coronation over good-to-firm turf at Royal Ascot, a fine try hinting she'll like the footing at Keeneland.

Deauville's 1,600-meter Prix de Lieurey Fonds Europeen de l'Elevage (G3) winner #8 Elounda Queen (10-1) is the final Queen Elizabeth II entrant with recent European form lines, but she's done her best work over good-to-soft ground and has yet to demonstrate she can compete against this caliber of competition.


1st: Mawj
2nd: Sounds of Heaven
3rd: Lindy

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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