With names such as Knicks Go, Medina Spirit, Hot Rod Charlie and Art Collector ready to go, it is easy to see how a four-way speed duel might become a popular idea when everyone handicaps the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar next month.
All four horses won in gate-to-wire fashion in their last starts. At first glance, it seems logical for those four worlds to collide.
However, there are other factors to consider for the Breeders’ Cup Classic pace scenario besides the horses’ early positions in the final prep races. Even if the pace does become fast, it is possible the speed still holds up.
First, it is important to separate horses who need the lead and those who are proven as effective pressers or stalkers as well. Sometimes pressers or stalkers become pacesetters in races lacking a need-the-lead type, but this edition of the Classic features two horses who are “true” pacesetters.
Knicks Go has always been a pacesetter who needs the lead to perform his best. All four of his wins this year came after controlling the front, including first-place finishes in the Pegasus World Cup, Cornhusker Handicap (G3), Whitney Stakes (G1) and the Lukas Classic (G3).
Medina Spirit can run well as a stalker, but he probably needs the lead to perform his best as well. His three wins this year in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2), Kentucky Derby and Awesome Again Stakes (G1) came on the lead. Without the lead, he lacks the same finishing punch.
Despite his lack of wins without the lead, Medina Spirit still manages to hit the board every time. In his eight starts this year, he shows a 8-4-3-1 record. In contrast, it feels like Knicks Go is the one liable to quit without the lead. When forced to contest the pace in the Saudi Cup, he faded to fourth late.
In any case, both Knicks Go and Medina Spirit are true pacesetters. But the feeling is that Knicks Go leads narrowly, while Medina Spirit presses him. It will not come as a surprise to see those roles reversed though.
Now to discuss Hot Rod Charlie and Art Collector.
Hot Rod Charlie led from gate to wire to capture the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) last month. Over the summer, he also set the pace in the Belmont Stakes before fading slightly to second.
Yet, Hot Rod Charlie also ran as a stalker in the Haskell Stakes (G1), where he crossed the wire in first.
Unfortunately, a disqualification took him down to last.
In addition, Hot Rod Charlie ran a stalker in the Kentucky Derby before closing in for a close third while in a four-way stretch battle.
Based on the Haskell, Hot Rod Charlie does not require the lead to give his best. Granted, he becomes tough on the lead if he does secure it. If a more eager pacesetter is present though, he changes his early style.
Art Collector generated talk as a pacesetting speed threat for the Classic after he led the field from gate to wire in the Woodward Stakes (G1) at Belmont this month. He also set the pace in his Alydar Stakes win at Saratoga three starts ago.
In between the Alydar and Woodward victories, Art Collector won the Charles Town Classic (G2) after pressing the pacesetter Sleepy Eyes Todd early. Last year in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, Art Collector initially let Swiss Skydiver cross over him as he stalked.
Even in his Woodward effort, Art Collector was never setting blazing fractions either. He took the field through 24.02 and 47.78 fractions.
On TimeformUS, those fractions translated into pace figures of 121 and 121. Knicks Go and Medina Spirit can both hit the 140 range early on.
Neither Hot Rod Charlie or Art Collector give the impression of need-the-lead runners. Can either of them contest the lead if asked in the Classic? Out of the two speed horses, Hot Rod Charlie is more likely to mix it up with the leaders than Art Collector, but why would Hot Rod Charlie want to enter a suicidal duel? Trainer Doug O'Neill knows what will happen.
Maybe Hot Rod Charlie gives Knicks Go and Medina Spirit about a length or two through the first half. Art Collector might run three or fourth lengths behind the leaders. Within that group, Stilleto Boy figures to join the stalkers.
The possible Classic favorite Essential Quality and Tripoli own tactical speed too, but those two runners are more likely to join the stalkers or settle in the front of midpack.
To give some credit to Essential Quality, he is the type of closer who can overcome an unfavorable pace scenario and still find a way to get up.
Regardless, the Breeders’ Cup Classic pace is likely not fast enough to cause an outright collapse. Both the connections of Knicks Go and Medina Spirit know they cannot win by engaging in a head-to-head speed duel, and the other speed types likely do not posses the same kind of speed or the jockeys will become too timid to try anything crazy.
Furthermore, Knicks Go, Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie are the type of horses that can handle a fast Grade 1 pace. Art Collector is less certain to handle a fast pace, although he did in the Blue Grass. In Knicks Go’s case, he will need to make sure he secures the lead first, even if the pace is fast, and hope Medina Spirit gives him a half length.
While the Classic pace might run at a lively clip, an outright collapse feels unlikely and a quality speed horse still might win anyway.
Keep those points in mind when handicapping the race.