For a lot of casual horse racing bettors there is a big black hole between the end of the Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup day. When the Belmont ends, though, racing is just entering the best of times. The summer and early fall are filled with great races at iconic tracks. Even if you aren’t looking and avidly follow every race of the summer, there are still some highlights to check out. Here are, in no particular order, 12 big races that are always worth checking out between the Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup:
Haskell Invitational - This 1 ⅛-mile challenge at Monmouth Park in New Jersey takes place n the first weekend of August. It is the first major test for three year olds after the Belmont. In recent years it has been drawing some big name horses - Rachel Alexandra and Big Brown both followed up their wins in Triple Crown races with a Haskell title.
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Travers Stakes - This race at iconic Saratoga in upstate New York is referred to as the Mid-Summer Derby, and runs at the Derby distance of 1 ¼-miles. It’s the biggest race for three year olds between the Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It falls at the end of August. It has not been uncommon to see horses try to win both the Haskell and the Travers. Summer Bird came closest in recent years with a second in the Haskell followed by a Travers win.
Queen’s Plate - The Queen’s Plate, typically run in late June, is the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. It is for three-year-old horses foaled in Canada. That excludes a lot of the major three year olds, but there are always some great horses in the field. The legendary Northern Dancer won the race in 1964.
Pacific Classic - Del Mar is California’s iconic summer track, and the Classic is the biggest race of the meet. It’s 1 ¼-miles for horses three year olds and up, though a three year old hasn’t won since 2002. In recent years it has been run over a synthetic track, and has been less popular for horses from outside of California as a result.
Jockey Club Gold Cup - This race is the jewel of the Belmont Park fall meet, and is one of the last major prep races for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It’s for three year olds and up, and in recent years three year olds have done very well -- Curlin, Bernardini, and Summer Bird have won it as three year olds in the last five years.
Arlington Million - This 1 ¼-mile turf race at Arlington Park in Chicago in mid-August is one of the major turf contests of the summer. The race often features the best of American turf horses facing strong European contenders. On the same day at Arlington the Secretariat Stakes is a major turf race that is part of the Grand Slam of Grass. It’s a great day of racing.
Diana Stakes - This race at Saratoga is for top female turf horses, and gives a good sense of which horses are going to be a big factor at the Filly and Mare Turf at the Breeders’ Cup. It’s always a great race that seems to consistently produce thrilling finishes.
Woodward Stakes - This is yet another major race at iconic Saratoga. Like the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which follows it on the calendar, this is a major race for older horses aiming at the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Because it falls earlier in the year it’s less common to see three year olds in it, though Rachel Alexandra won it two years ago at three. The great Forego pulled off an incredible feat in the 70’s when he won the race four years in a row.
Man o’ War Stakes - This is a turf marathon -- 1 ⅜-miles -- held in early July at Belmont Park. Horses that win the Man o’ War establish themselves as the class of the turf horses in the country. It’s now tackled by turf specialists, but things were different in another era -- Secretariat won this race after taking down the Triple Crown. It will be a long time until we see another Triple Crown race winner in this race.
Stephen Foster Handicap - This race runs at Churchill Downs in June, and is one of the first major tests for older horses of the summer. Run at 1 ⅛ miles it’s a race targeted by top-level horses with their eye on the Breeders’ Cup Classic - including the Blame, the 2010 winner of both races.
Champagne Stakes - Run at Belmont in the fall, this is one of the first major chances we have to see the best two year old colts in the country face each other. Triple Crown winners Count Fleet and Seattle Slew won the Champagne, though there hasn’t been a winner of the race who has gone on to win a Triple Crown race since Birdstone, the 2004 Belmont winner.
Frizette Stakes - Also run at Belmont, the Frizette is the female equivalent of the Champagne. Both races are run at one mile. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies is one of the more predictable Breeders’ Cup races, and this is a great opportunity to get to see some of the best horses that will be in that field.