As Breeders’ Cup Classics go, the 2021 renewal is right up there with its abundance of storylines.
From the question of the No. 1-ranked older male Knicks Go’s ability to navigate the 1 1/4-mile distance for his first time to the heated 3-year-old male division debate, which has had enough storylines in 2021 to fill several seasons, there are many questions that likely will be answered late Saturday afternoon at Del Mar.
Before I dive into a few of these questions and possible answers, let’s take a look at this week’s Division Rankings:
Older dirt males
1. Knicks Go. Passed his final test last out in the Lukas Classic (G3) and now his connections are preparing him for the Breeders' Cup Classic, his first race at 10 furlongs. With two Grade 1 wins on the season, he leads this division. He is a win away from the Eclipse in this division and Horse of the Year.
2. Maxfield. Missed another chance at a Grade 1 win when he was a disappointing runner-up in the Woodward to Art Collector. I am going to go ahead and leave this guy here at No. 2. For starters, he was stuck behind a very slow pace that Art Collector was allowed to get away with. Also, Maxfield has run well in several starts over the whole season, from coast to coast. Although he is 0-3 in Grade 1 starts this season, he has not missed the board and has won three graded stakes. Will skip the Breeders’ Cup.
3. Silver State. I am going to leave him here at No. 3 despite his bizarre loss last out in the Parx Dirt Mile when he inexplicably lost focus and in the final yards let Mind Control come back on the rail to beat him. Count me among those who felt he was much the best in the race, especially when taking into account that he was far back behind slow fractions. He will be tough to beat this weekend in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Not out of this Eclipse race yet.
4. Max Player. The winner of the Suburban (G2) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) in his last two starts, he clearly is better than ever. The JCGC field was historically weak, but then again, this division isn't the strongest either. Will run this weekend in the Breeders' Cup Classic, but I still think he is a cut below the best.
5. Art Collector. Moves into the top five here off of his win in the Woodward last out, where he was allowed to set a tepid pace and prevail in the stretch. The waters get much deeper this weekend in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Hard to envision him being a factor in the 10-furlong Classic, which came up very deep this season.
Next 5: Mystic Guide, Tripoli, Dr Post, Express Train, Happy Saver.
Older dirt females
1. Letruska. Will now set her sights on Horse of the Year, and a win in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff this weekend will place her squarely in that conversation. Last time out she won the Spinster (G1) over a strong field. Now 17-for-22 on her career, she has won four Grade 1 events this year over four race tracks.
2. Shedaresthedevil. Last out she was game to get the job done by a neck in the Locust Grove (G3) at Churchill Downs, and before that she was sensational in her trip out west to take the Clement Hirsch (G1). The win was important for another reason; it came over the same Del Mar surface as the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Don't underestimate the importance of that fact. She showed that she can ship across country and win. She is clearly the biggest threat now to Letruska in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, but not for the Eclipse – that ship has sailed.
3. Bonny South. Runner-up in two straight Grade 1 events, the Spinster and the Personal Ensign, she is in the best form of career. Her lone win in 2021 came in the Doubledogdare (G3) at Churchill Downs. Will skip the Breeders’ Cup.
4. Royal Flag. Defeating a subpar field last out in the Beldame (G2) at Belmont does not move her up in these rankings; she remains here at No. 4. Finished a good third to Letruska in the Personal Ensign previous to the Beldame. She will run in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff too and is not without a shot there.
5. Dunbar Road. Four starts on the season and this mare is getting better with each one. Was a good runner-up to Letruska in the Spinster and could be dangerous with a quick pace setup in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Next 5: As Time Goes By, Envoutante, Crystal Ball, Gamine, Antoinette.
1. Essential Quality. The Travers (G1) was his fifth graded-stakes win of the season, the most of any horse in any division. Clearly has this No. 1 spot by a wide margin. He trained up to this weekend's Breeders' Cup Classic, where a win at Del Mar could net this guy Horse of the Year. The big gap since the Travers is worrisome.
2. Medina Spirit. If you have dislike for the human connections, toss them aside. His win in the Awesome Again (G1) over older horses was the best race of his career and the second fastest route race run by a 3-year-old male in 2021. He also became the only 3-year-old male to defeat older males in a Grade 1 thus far this season. The Breeders' Cup Classic this weekend is next.
3. Hot Rod Charlie. Was simply sensational in his Penn Derby (G1) win. In running the second fastest two-turn race this season, speed-figure-wise, this guy will be among the top betting choices in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Leaving it out on the track every time he runs, he and Essential Quality have been the pillars of this division since last fall. He too is in with a long-shot chance for year-end hardware.
4. Jackie's Warrior. In another dominant win, this time in the Gallant Bob (G2) at Parx, he ran another giant speed figure. He has developed into the best sprinter in the country now and will be the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Sprint over older horses this weekend. Certainly the best 3-year-old male sprinter since Runhappy.
5. Midnight Bourbon. Has really brought his "A" game in his last two starts. He was a clear second best last out in the Penn Derby to "Hot Rod" and previous to that was a close runner-up to Essential Quality in the Travers. Connections have decided to skip the Breeders' Cup with him and point to possibly the Clark (G1) at Churchill later this fall with an eye on the big races in early 2022.
Next 5: Life is Good, Mandaloun, Rombauer, Stilleto Boy, Dr. Schivel.
1. Malathaat. Took care of business the way a prohibitive favorite should have in the Alabama (G1) at Saratoga. Now a winner of three Grade 1 events on the season, the Eclipse is a virtually locked up, and she runs this weekend in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Win or lose in the Breeders' Cup, she will get my vote in this division.
2. Clairiere. Has stepped up nicely in her last two, winning the Cotillion (G1) last out as much the best. Ran a really good race in the Alabama to finish runner-up to Malathaat prior and now runs in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, where the waters will get much deeper.
3. Search Results. Cutting back to the seven-furlong Test Stakes (G1) last out, she finished an even third. Previously she was an impressive winner of the Acorn, which was her first Grade 1 win. Suffered her only loss, to Malathaat, in the Kentucky Oaks earlier this season, but she was game in defeat. Her connections have decided to take her out of training and point to a 4-year-old campaign. Will likely drop from this spot in the coming weeks.
4. Private Mission. Late bloomer defeated older in the Zenyatta (G1) last out and has been impressive in three starts this season, all wins. Fresh filly could be dangerous from the No. 1 post in the Breeders' Cup Distaff on her home track. Reminds me a bit of Hollywood Wildcat in 1993, who also burst onto the scene late in her sophomore season and ended up defeating all comers in the Distaff.
5. Soothsay. Showing tremendous fight and determination in the stretch of her Indiana Oaks (G3) win, Soothsay looked like a different horse from the one we saw previously in her loss to Crazy Beautiful in the Summertime Oaks (G2). The Indiana race was her first race outside of Santa Anita too. Any way you slice it, she is now a player in this division with the Breeders' Cup in her backyard too. Another that has matured right before our eyes but now is done racing for the year, her racing future in doubt.
Next 5: Army Wife, Obligatory, Crazy Beautiful, Zaajel, Maracuja.
1. Domestic Spending. Runner-up in the Mister D (G1), he couldn't overcome a slow place set by winner Two Emmys. The loss leaves this division open for the taking. He has won two Grade 1 events this season; his facile Manhattan Stakes (G1) win at Belmont was superb, defeating several others ranked below. Long layoff as he gears up for the Breeders' Cup Turf this weekend.
2. Mo Forza. I'm not so sure he isn't the best grass horse in the country right now. I almost placed him No. 1, but he simply doesn't have the resume to unseat Domestic Spending right now. Was sensational again last out in his City of Hope Mile (G2) win. He will be among the Breeders' Cup Mile favorites and is very much in this Eclipse race, despite not winning a Grade 1 yet this season. Has won eight of his last nine starts over the last 24 months.
3. Smooth Like Strait. Another tough luck runner-up finish to his rival, Mo Forza. Last month it was a half-length defeat in the City of Hope Mile (G2); the previous start it was a head loss in the Del Mar Mile (G2). As honest as they come, and is sure to be in the mix turning for home in the Breeders' Cup Mile this weekend.
4. Colonel Liam. Like Domestic Spending, this guy also has two Grade 1 wins on his resume, but he sports a Grade 2 win in 2021 too. True, he did go down to defeat in the Manhattan in June, but it was his first loss of 2021. He had been running since January and has won three stakes. Off since that Manhattan loss.
5. Gufo. Disappointed as the favorite last out in the Joe Hirsch (G1), where he finished third. His connections are moving forward with a planned Breeders’ Cup Turf start.
Next 5: United, Hit the Road, Tribhuvan, Rockemperor, Japan.
1. War Like Goddess. Dominant again, this time in the Flower Bowl (G1), she is a serious contender now for this Eclipse. Previously she won the Glens Falls (G2) at Saratoga and was a winner of two other graded races earlier this season. She has only one loss from six career starts, and has certainly stepped up her game for trainer Bill Mott. Deserving of this No. 1 spot and will be among the favorites in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
2. Althiqa. Returned in the First Lady (G1) at Keeneland and disappointed as the favorite while finishing fourth. That effort dropped her from my top spot. Previously, she won back-to-back Grade 1 events, the Diana and Just a Game. Has since been retired.
3. Princess Grace. Unbeaten in three starts this season, she won the Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf (G3) last time out. Scratched from the First Lady she will skip the Breeders’ Cup and run on the undercard in the Goldikova (G2).
4. Mean Mary. No excuses in the Beverly D, but she was game to hold the runner-up spot. She was simply second best. Prior to the Beverly D she was victorious in the New York Stakes (G2) and previous to that winning race, Mean Mary was best in the Gallorette Stakes (G3) at Pimlico. Has since been retired because of injury.
5. Blowout. Winner of the First Lady (G1) last out, she has won two of her three starts this season. A speedster, if she can secure reasonable fractions she can be tough to beat. She likely will set the pace in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Next 5: Going to Vegas, Summer Romance, Viadera, Got Stormy, Regal Glory.
1. Jackie's Warrior. He was outstanding in his last three starts, all wins. Last out in the Gallant Bob (G2) he dominated an overmatched field. He is the best 3-year-old male sprinter we have seen since Runhappy in 2015 and has shown an uncanny ability to handle torrid fractions and have enough in the stretch to find the wire first.
2. Dr. Schivel. He is no fluke. He was dominant in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G2), drawing off by more than three lengths. Another 3-year-old male, this guy will give Jackie's Warrior a serious test in this weekend's Breeders' Cup Sprint. Previously, he was all heart in the Bing Crosby (G1), defeating several tough veteran sprinters. Has never been off the board in seven starts.
3. C Z Rocket. Ran well in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, but he just didn't have his late punch and was nosed out by Flagstaff to the runner-up spot. Still feel this guy will be tough in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but as a deep closer, he needs a quick pace to have any sort of shot.
4. Flagstaff. Tough old veteran fired again in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship. Earlier this season he was second best in the True North (G2) and won the Churchill Down Stakes (G1). Will miss the Breeders' Cup and has been retired.
5. Firenze Fire. Was never going to catch Following Sea in the four-horse Vosburgh (G2) when the latter was allowed to set a leisurely pace. Finishing runner-up, he could surprise everyone in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Next 5: Following Sea, Life is Good, Lexitonian, Special Reserve, Ginobili.
1. Gamine. Got the job done again, this time in the Ballerina (G1) at Saratoga. She has not lost a race since last year's Kentucky Oaks, but with only four starts this year, she could lose this Eclipse to one horse, Bella Sofia. The Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint is up next this weekend.
2. Bella Sofia. This 3-year-old filly will be the pick by many to upset Gamine in the Breeders' Cup. She has been dominant in her two sprint stakes starts, the Test (G1) at Saratoga and the Gallant Bloom (G2) at Belmont.
3. Bell's the One. Prevailed in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (G2) by a neck but will skip the Breeders’ Cup. She has won three stakes this year, two of which were graded.
4. Sconsin. Super effort last out in the Open Mind Stakes and might have been the most dangerous to Gamine on Breeders' Cup day, but her connections are not sending her to Del Mar.
5. Ce Ce. Easy winner of her final Breeders' Cup prep, the Chillingworth Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita. Previously, she showed she belongs with the best this division has to offer as she finished third in the Ballerina, beaten just three lengths. She is not without a chance in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
Next 5: Estilo Talentoso, Lake Avenue, Kimari, Edgeway, Frank's Rockette.
1. Jack Christopher. The Champagne (G1) winner is now 2-for-2 on his career, but it was the way he won the Champagne that caught many eyes. He ran the fastest race, speed-figure-wise, by a 2-year-old male since 2017. He is the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. 2. Corniche. This fast maiden winner didn't disappoint in the American Pharoah Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita, running away by over three lengths for the win. Has home court advantage in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. 3. Pinehurst. Unbeaten in two starts, including his last-out win in the Del Mar Futurity (G1), but both his wins were slow on the speed figure side as compared with others in these rankings. Also with home court advantage in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. 4. Major General. Winner of both his starts, he won the Iroquois Stakes (G3) last month. 5. Rattle N Roll. Impressive winner of the Breeders' Futurity (G1) will skip the Breeders' Cup. Next 5: Commandperformance, Wit, Gunite, Pappacap, High Oak, Albahr.
1. Echo Zulu. Stays atop here after another Grade 1 win, this time in the Frizette by over seven lengths. Previous to that she won the Spinaway (G1) at Saratoga. The clear-cut Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies favorite. 2. Hidden Connection. The Midwest star has won both her starts, the Pocahontas Stakes (G3) being her last. The Breeders' Cup this weekend is next. 3. Ain't Easy. Facile winner of the Chandelier (G2) at Santa Anita, she is 2-for-2 thus far in her career but will skip the Breeders' Cup. 4. Juju's Map. Winner of the Alcibiades (G1) as the favorite at Keeneland after breaking her maiden at Ellis Park. She also runs this weekend in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies 5. Averly Jane. Winner of all four of her starts, she will run Friday in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint against the boys.
Next 5: Behave Virginia, Dance to the Music, Tarabi, Happy Soul, Wild Beauty.
The presence of the star 3-year-olds, the No. 1 ranked Essential Quality, No. 3 ranked Hot Rod Charlie, and the embattled No. 2 ranked Medina Spirit, all but ensured the Classic to be a must-see event on any racing fan’s calendar. Toss in the top older male, Knicks Go, and a good supporting cast of five others, and it’s easy to see why this 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic is one of the more highly anticipated Classics we have seen in the last few seasons.
In Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie, we have two horses who have been at the top of their division for a year now. Running 1-2 in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, this pair becomes the first in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to return at age 3 and run in the Classic.
These two will be the picks by many to win this race, a race in which seven of the nine runners are Grade 1 winners. Considering the lack of successes from past Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners and also-rans, what these two have accomplished since their close finish in last season’s Juvenile has been nothing short of remarkable.
Both have brought their “A” game in every race they have run since their first meeting, with Essential Quality’s only loss a narrow one in the Kentucky Derby. Hot Rod Charlie also has been there in every start, finishing ahead of his rival in the Kentucky Derby when a close third and then losing a heartbreaking Belmont Stakes that saw him almost hold on after setting a scorching pace.
While a win by Essential Quality will sew up the divisional Eclipse, Horse of the Year also is in play for the son of Tapit. He would also become the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to win the Classic.
If not for a disqualification after crossing the wire first in the Haskell (G1) Hot Rod Charlie would be looking for his third straight Grade 1 win, the most in his division.
Medina Spirit comes into this Breeders’ Cup Classic off of two straight wins. His last start might have been his best race to date. In defeating older horses in the Awesome Again (G1), he became the only one of these three to pull that off. But to be fair, neither Essential Quality nor Hot Rod Charlie has faced their elders yet.
Let’s cut to the chase here: Medina Spirit has a lot on the line in this Classic. He doesn’t know it, but he is running to try to prove many naysayers wrong. Prior to his win in the Shared Belief, many questioned whether the son of Protonico was the goods. They pointed to his Kentucky Derby failed post-race banned substance test as the reason for his win. While I believe that the failed test had nothing to do with his win, nor do I believe there was any malicious intent by the connections, doubt lingered with a good number of racing fans.
Freshened after his Preakness third-place finish, Medina Spirit has been sensational in his last two starts. In the Awesome Again, he even impressed the speed figure folks, running the second fastest route race by anyone in his division.
It is widely believed that Medina Spirit needs the lead to win, and while it is true that all of his wins have come when he has been on the front end, I don’t believe he is one-dimensional. He showed he can close from off the pace in the past, almost catching Life is Good in the Sham Stakes (G3) last winter. Also, don’t sell trainer Bob Baffert short. He knows what is on the line here, and you can bet he will have Medina Spirit ready to run the race of his life.
An interesting angle to this, one that I have covered in past weeks, is Medina Spirit and the Eclipse. I wrote several weeks ago, before Medina Spirit returned from his layoff, that if he ran the table and his record included two Grade 1 wins that included the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he must be the Eclipse winner.
I know that he will have my vote if he wins on Saturday – how could he not? With a win, he will own wins in both of his head-to-head meetings against Essential Quality,and will have defeated Hot Rod Charlie in all three of their meetings this season. He also will own the most Grade 1 wins of any in his division. Whatever your feelings are regarding the connections, toss them aside. This is about the horse.
For the No. 1 ranked older dirt male, Knicks Go, it is very simple: If he wins, he is the Horse of the Year. Sure, Letruska will get votes for that honor if she wins the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, but Knicks Go leads all the polls right now, and I can’t envision him dropping from that spot if he wins.
The one question everyone has is whether Knicks Go can win at 10 furlongs. He never has run the Classic distance, and with the expected pace scenario here, he will not have things his own way on the front end. The one time he had to rate was in the Saudi Cup, and he faded to finish fourth. His connections pointed to the fact that was around one turn and Knicks Go prefers two turns. I don’t buy that.
I look at it this way: Either Knicks Go runs the others off their feet like Ghostzapper in 2004 or he finishes off the board. I don’t see an in-between here. Coincidently, Ghostzapper had these same 10-furlong questions to answer before his Classic run. He is the closest comp I can come up with in previous Classics that fit Knick’s Go’s profile - very fast (speed figure-wise) and trying 10 panels for the first time in the Classic.