Head to Head: Handicapping the Breeders' Cup Classic

Head to Head: Handicapping the Breeders' Cup Classic
Photo: Evers/Eclipse Sportswire

Each year the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic is the toast of the fall. It brings together certainly the nation’s, if not the world’s, best males and sometimes females, to compete at the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. This year’s edition, held at Del Mar, pits the best of the older males, Knicks Go, against a trio of accomplished 3-year olds and a duo of equally talented 4-year-olds.

Aside from bragging rights, the winner of this year’s Classic could be crowned Horse of the Year. Should either Knicks Go or Essential Quality annex the weekend’s biggest race, they will be a shoe-in as they are two of the top contenders for the honors. Should both fail, that will leave the door open for others, particularly Letruska, who headlines the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

With so much on the line, Laurie Ross of Pedigree Power and Ashley Tamulonis of Coast To Coast sort out the contenders from the pretenders. 



1. Tripoli (15-1)

Tripoli threw his first clunker in the Awesome Again since switching to dirt. The Pacific Classic (G1) winner has been beating up on lesser types but in turn has traded victories with Express Train, Medina Spirit and Stilleto Boy. Tripoli gets a jock switch to Irad Ortiz Jr., who won with Vino Rosso in 2019. The John Sadler trainee likes Del Mar and should get a decent stalking trip behind the speed. Long shot exotics.

The switch to dirt seemed to have been a long time coming for this son of top turf sire Kitten’s Joy. Tripoli posted three consecutive triple-digit Beyer scores off the switch from turf to dirt before bouncing a bit in the Awesome Again (G1) behind Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Medina Spirit. This will be a much tougher overall field, but I concur with Laurie. Long shot exotics.

2. Express Train (20-1)

Express Train has been in the money in four of five starts at Del Mar. However, he had troubled trips in his last two starts and gets a jock switch to Victor Espinoza. Despite this, the John Shirreffs trainee is still a cut below. Toss.

Express Train is pretty consistent, especially at Del Mar; however, he also is unaccustomed to facing the caliber of field he will line up against here. His best speed figures line up decently with the best in the field, but he will have to bring that effort and then some to have a shot. Toss.

3. Hot Rod Charlie (4-1)

Hot Rod Charlie's feud with Essential Quality dates back to last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which Essential Quality won by 3/4 length. But Hot Rod Charlie turned the tables in the Kentucky Derby, beating his nemesis by a head for third place. The eye-catching Doug O'Neil trainee also has lost to Medina Spirit twice. Hot Rod Charlie will be in the thick of things, yet he can sit off the pacesetters. Win contender.


Hot Rod Charlie is one of the best in his crop, and he was finally able to get that elusive Grade 1 victory last out in the Pennsylvania Derby after being disqualified to seventh in the Haskell Invitational (G1). The son of Oxbow has posted triple-digit speed figures in his last four races, including a tie for the highest last-race speed rating with a 110. Doug O’Neill adds blinkers for the Breeders’ Cup. Expect for Hot Rod Charlie to be up or near the pace. Win contender.

4. Essential Quality (3-1)

Essential Quality was the champion 2-year-old and likely will be named champion 3-year-old. He can hang back behind the pace and make his move in the stretch. Here's an interesting fact about Tapit offspring and Del Mar's main track; seven of his offspring have raced two turns, and only one, Unique Bella, won. Two placed, and once was third. That being said, never underestimate a champion's will to win. Win contender.

If not for an unlucky trip in the Kentucky Derby (G1), champion Essential Quality would be undefeated, of that I’m sure. Since falling to the controversial Medina Spirit, Essential Quality has rattled off three straight wins in the Belmont, Jim Dandy (G2), and Travers (G1). Clearly the Classic distance will not be a problem, and the lovely gray always runs his race. Win contender.

5. Knicks Go (5-2)

Since last October, Knicks Go has been the favorite in every race, and he's failed to deliver only twice. This is his first try at 10 furlongs, but the extra distance isn't a concern because he has opened up at nine furlongs. The Brad Cox trainee will face a lot of pressure on the front, but he could prevail as an older, stronger horse. Win contender.


Knicks Go will be the one to catch on the front end. I have two big knocks against this son of Paynter. The first is that he has never been asked to run the classic distance. The second is that the fields he has faced, with the exception of the Whitney (G1), have left a good bit to be desired. Yes, he’s a very good runner, but the 3-year olds are going to pressure him in a way he has not yet seen. Additionally, his speed figures have declined in his last three starts. Use underneath.

6. Art Collector (8-1)

Art Collector is undefeated since joining Bill Mott's barn and reverting to his usual pace pressing/setting style. He loses regular rider Luis Saez to Essential Quality but picks up Mike Smith, who undoubtedly will keep the pressure on Knicks Go and Medina Spirit. Art Collector is trying 10  furlongs for the second time. I'm not convinced that he can handle 10 furlongs against other Grade 1 speed since Art Collector lost ground in the stretch in two of his three starts at nine furlongs. Further, he has reeled off three career-best Brisnet speed ratings. The critical question – will he progress or regress? Exotics.

Art Collector was one I really loved last year, even if he beat my girl Swiss Skydiver in the Blue Grass (G2). Although Laurie is right that Art Collector lost ground in the stretch at nine furlongs two times out of three races this year, if you go back to last year, you will find that he gained ground in the stretch in both nine furlong starts then. His speed figures have improved with each outing in 2021, and Mike Smith isn’t called “Big Money Mike” for no reason. I think Art Collector has a legitimate shot. Win contender.

7. Stilleto Boy (30-1)

Stilleto Boy hasn't won beyond 1 1/16 miles, and he ate Medina Spirit's dust in the Awesome Again and the Shared Belief Stakes. Toss.

I have nothing more to add to Laurie’s assessment other than Stilleto Boy likely will provide pace pressure to his bettors and then roll up like a cheap rug. Toss. 

8.  Medina Spirit (4-1)

Medina Spirit is all heart. He had it his own way in his last two starts but now faces the toughest test of his career. Maybe he can out-game the older Knicks Go, or maybe they'll cook each other on the front end. Either way, Medina Spirit isn't a quitter. Exotics.


Unfortunately for Medina Spirit, the biggest win of his career, the Kentucky Derby, is mired in controversy still. To his credit, Medina Spirit has been incredibly consistent, discrediting that he won because he was drugged. With that said, I still believe he is not the top player in the crop. He should get a piece of the pie, but I do not see him winning. Exotics.

9. Max Player (8-1)

Max Player won two straight since switching from a closer to a pace presser, both starts at 10 furlongs. The Asmussen trainee can settle a couple of lengths off the pace and will be right there at the end. Long shot win contender.


There’s no doubt that the switch in running style has done anything but help Max Player. I love that his last two races both were at 10 furlongs. Not only did he win both, but he did so both by showing heart to win by a neck in the Suburban (G2) and by opening up to win by four in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). I don’t like that his speed figure dropped from the Suburban to the JCGC, but I do think he has a good shot to win. Win contender.

Final thoughts


The favorite has won twice and placed twice in the last decade, and 3-year-olds have won four times. I can't recall when I have seen so many pacesetters in the Classic, and my natural inclination is to look for a horse that can settle just off the pace. So that leads me to Essential Quality. He is facing the most challenging field of his career, and Tapit offspring don't do well around Del Mar's turns. But the pretty gray colt is in the same league as other 3-year-old Classic winners: Authentic, Arrogate, American Pharoah, Curlin and Tiznow. With that being said, any of the top four can win, and it wouldn't be a surprise.

Ashley: As Laurie indicated above, this year’s Classic is loaded with pacesetters. Initially it did not look like there was going to be this much pace, but the recent switches in run styles for Max Player and Art Collector have caused the front-end numbers to swell. With Knicks Go never having attempted the classic distances before and now also likely to face a good bit of pressure up front, I, too, must focus on Essential Quality. His run style will place him in a good position without getting cooked with the rest of the pacesetters. I believe Essential Quality’s main competition will be rival Hot Rod Charlie and Max Player.




4. Essential Quality (3-1)

4. Essential Quality (3-1)

5. Knicks Go (5-2)

8. Max Player (8-1)

8. Max Player (8-1)

3. Hot Rod Charlie (3-1)

3. Hot Rod Charlie (3-1)

5. Knicks Go (5-2)


Meet Ashley Tamulonis

Despite growing up in a non-horse racing state, Ashley has been a fan of the sport since a young age. Her love for horse racing was fostered through the kids’ book series Thoroughbred by Joanna Campbell, which led her to educate herself on the ins and outs of the sport. Since becoming actively involved in the industry just a few years ago, Ashley has had the opportunity to meet many important players in the industry, attend the Eclipse Awards, see personal favorite Mucho Macho Man race twice in person, and befriend many of the fantastic fans and horsemen involved in the sport.

Ashley began her time with Horse Racing Nation covering racing in South Florida but also blogged about nationwide racing, industry issues and, from time to time, offered her opinion on how various changes could be beneficial to the industry. A move North to New Hampshire began both a new chapter in both Ashley's personal life and professional life. She currently pens the From Coast to Coast blog for HRN. Ashley also participates as a voter in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Polls.

An alumni of Macon State College, Ashley is from Central Georgia but is currently living in New Hampshire with her husband, Chris, and their two sons Charlie and Michael. A stay-at-home mom, Ashley juggles parenting with blogging and her other passions. Aside from horse racing, Ashley is a fervent football fan, enjoys reading and studying history, and hopes to someday author a historical work covering the Tudor period as well as biographies of horse racing’s stars, equine and human alike.

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