LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The royals are big on anniversaries, which should make the 25th running of the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland a festive occasion. Thing is, the QE II is always something fancy, to which another killer renewal here Saturday can attest.
Eleven 3-year-old fillies will step onto the turf course for the $500,000 QE II, the sixth and last Grade 1 race of the Keeneland fall meet. Two of the starters, Backseat Rhythm and Magical Fantasy, both enter off Grade 1 wins, but by no means is this close to a match race.
In fact, in terms of accomplishment and potential, not a whole lot appears to separate the entire field, and although Backseat Rhythm and Magical Fantasy rang up that all-important Grade 1 tally by capturing the Garden City and Del Mar Oaks in their respective last starts, clearly there are others capable of doing the same Saturday. Santa Anita Oak's winner Ariege, Sefroua, Rosa Grace, and My Princess Jess seem to be sitting on big efforts, and even a victory by a longer shot such such as Closeout, Lickety Lemon, or Alwajeeha would not qualify as a huge surprise.
Ariege is already familiar to Keeneland fans, having captured the Grade 2 Beaumont Stakes over Polytrack here in the spring. Trainer Bobby Frankel said afterward that Ariege probably would be just as effective on grass, if not more so, and he eventually set out to prove it by running her in August in a small stakes at Saratoga, which she won in impressive fashion. She then ran in the Sept. 6 Garden City, in which she finished a close third behind Backseat Rhythm.
"We took a tiny chip out of her ankle after the Beaumont," Frankel said. "She was coming back fairly quick in the Garden City, and she ran pretty good. This should be a real good race for her, if she likes the surface. It's an extremely good field, and I think the horse that gets the best trip is going to win. I envision our filly laying just off the pace and making one run."
Trip-wise, Ariege shouldn't have much of an excuse in the 1 1/8-mile QE II, considering she will start from the favorable inside post when ridden by Alan Garcia, arguably the hottest jockey in North America in recent months.
"I'll let the jock do what he wants," Frankel said. "He's a pretty cool rider."
Another QE II filly exiting the Garden City is My Princess Jess, a three-time stakes winner who finished just a length behind Ariege in fourth. Trainer Barclay Tagg, who won the QEoII last year with Bit of Whimsy, said he is not overly concerned with My Princess Jess having been assigned to the opposite end of the starting gate in post 11.
"If it works out where she can get position and wait long enough to make that one short run she makes, she could be pretty formidable," Tagg said.
The early pacesetter in the QE II could be Alwajeeha, who was a close second to My Princess Jess two starts back in the Grade 2 Lake George at Saratoga. After Alwajeeha, the closest pursuers could be Ariege, Sefroua, Storm Mesa, and My Princess Jess, while the rest tend to do their running from midpack or even farther behind, including Backseat Rhythm, Magical Fantasy, and Closeout.
Storm Mesa has put together a noteworthy campaign for trainer Bret Calhoun. Her March maiden win at Fair Grounds began a five-race run that culminated with a victory in the Grade 2 San Clemente at Del Mar in July. Her streak came to an end in the Del Mar Oaks, and she comes into the QE II off an eight-week freshening.
The QE II occasionally has produced a starter for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, but with the races just 13 days apart and with shipping cross-country to Santa Anita required, that may not happen this year.
The QE II is carded as the ninth race on a card that also includes the Grade 3 Perryville Stakes (race 7). Another spectacular day of weather is forecast for Saturday, when first post is 1:10 p.m. Eastern.