Breeders’ Cup 2021: Which favorites are beatable on dirt?

Breeders’ Cup 2021: Which favorites are beatable on dirt?
Photo: Candice Chavez / Eclipse Sportswire

The 37th edition of the Breeders’ Cup, which be run at Del Mar for the second time on Nov. 5 and 6, once again will have eight races run on the main track, and seven of them are expected to have heavy favorites because of their impressive records this year.

Long-shot payouts are a feature of the Breeders’ Cup as favorites are frequently defeated, but some of the short prices will win. Here is a look at this year’s favorites, their trainers and some historical perspective on the races.

Classic - Knicks Go, 5-2. (Brad Cox / Joel Rosario) Knicks Go is the highest-priced favorite in this article, and he will be the bettor’s top choice because of a 2021 campaign that began in January with a victory in the Pegasus World Cup (G1). His connections went to Saudi Cup looking for the big money and he ran fourth. In the Met Mile (G1) he again was fourth, and it became clear that Knicks Go needs to run only around two turns where his speed is a formidable weapon. He heads to the Classic with three wins in a row, including the Whitney (G1), and two of them earned the kind of speed figures that Classic winners need. That is why he will be a deserving favorite.

Over the years, favorites have not done well in the Classic. Only 10 have won, and they are legendary names, such as American Pharoah, Zenyatta, Ghostzapper, Skip Away, Cigar, A.P. Indy, Alysheba and Ferdinand.

Trainer Brad Cox has taken the Breeders’ Cup by storm, winning at a 35 percent clip since 2014 with seven winners from 20 runners, with his first winner coming in 2018. That includes four victories last year at his home base at Keeneland.

Supporters of Knicks Go will point to his current form and his win in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). His detractors will say that he has never run the Classic distance of 10 furlongs and that he will face quality pace pressure from the likes of Medina Spirit.

Status of the favorite - Vulnerable.

Distaff
Letruska7-5. (Fausto Gutierrez / Irad Ortiz Jr.) Letruska began her 2021 campaign on Jan. 31 at Sam Houston with a victory in the Houston Ladies Classic (G3) and continued without interruption at six different tracks, with six wins from seven starts. The daughter of Super Saver won her last five in a row, with four Grade 1 scores. Her only loss came in the Azeri (G2) in March when she did get to the early lead. Those victories were powerful front-running efforts where she has easily turned back all challengers.

Historically, 15 favorites won the Distaff, and this will be the first Breeders’ Cup starter for trainer Fausto Gutierrez.

Her five recent victories make it hard to find fault with this deserving heavy favorite. Letruska’s only loss this year was to Shedaresthedevil when she did not get to the lead early. She has never run at Del Mar but that should not matter, considering her travels this year. Interestingly, in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar, only two of the eight dirt races were won by horses from California.

Status of the favorite - Likely winner.

Sprint
Jackie’s Warrior, 8-5. (Steve Asmussen / Joel Rosario) Like so many of the great horses trained by Steve Asmussen, they seem to get better and better the more that they race. The 3-year-old Jackie’s Warrior has eight wins from 11 career starts, and two of them were going two turns in races that were won by Essential Quality. That means he had only one loss sprinting, and that was by a neck in the Woody Stephens (G1) when he broke last and had to be rushed up to the lead. Jackie’s Warrior showed his grit when he beat Life Is Good at Saratoga in the Jerkens Memorial (G1).

The Sprint has not been kind to favorites, with only eight wins in the 36 prior runnings. In the Breeders’ Cup, Asmussen has a record of seven wins from 61 starters for 11.5 percent.

Jackie’s Warrior will face older sprinters for the first time, but those older horses have been an inconsistent bunch at best. He will also travel west for the first time, but Asmussen sends his horses there early to give them plenty of time to acclimate, as he did when Gun Runner won the Classic at Del Mar in 2017.

Status of the favorite - Likely winner.

Dirt Mile
Life Is Good, 9-5, (Todd Pletcher / Irad Ortiz Jr.) Life Is Good began his career for Bob Baffert with a debut victory at Del Mar in November as a 2-year-old. A pair of impressive wins early on the Kentucky Derby trail had the son of Into Mischief as the probable favorite on the first Saturday in May. But he was sidelined after that third win and then later moved to Todd Pletcher. The Jerkens was a tough spot to return against the best sprinter in the country, and Life Is Good was a very close second. Pletcher gave him an easier stretch-out victory against older horses in the Kelso (G2).

Since its inception in 2007, only three favorites – Knicks Go, Liam’s Map, and Goldencents in his second victory – have won the Dirt Mile. Trainer Todd Pletcher has 11 wins out of 146 winners for 7.5 percent. Four of those wins for Pletcher were with favorites, including Liam’s Map in 2015.

Life Is Good will face a field of quality older horses with pace pressure possible.

Status of the favorite - Vulnerable.

Filly and Mare Sprint
Gamine, 6-5 (Bob Baffert / John Velazquez) Gamine has lost only once in her 10-race career, and that was in last year's Kentucky Oaks (G1). Since then she has been sprinting and has five wins in a row, beginning with last year’s Filly and Mare Sprint. Interestingly, she won at seven tracks, but she has never run at Del Mar.

Five favorites have won this race since 2007, and that includes Groupie Doll twice. In his Breeders’ Cup career, Baffert has victories from 17 of 125 runners for 13.6 percent. Gamine is his only winner in the Filly and Mare Sprint.

Those looking to beat Gamine will say that she has not dominated her four races this year as she did in the past. To me, it looks like the usual opposition would have to make significant improvement to pull the upset.

Status of the favorite - Likely winner.

Juvenile
Jack Christopher, 9-5 (Chad Brown / Jose Ortiz) – Jack Christopher won both of his starts by a combined 11 1/2 lengths. He prepped for the Breeders’ Cup by stalking the pace and drawing off to win the Champagne (G1). He is the only horse in the field with a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure, which is better than most winners of the Juvenile.

Eleven favorites have taken the Juvenile, which is one of the original Breeders' Cup races. Chad Brown won a lot of races at the World Championships very quickly, with 15 victories from 104 starters for 14.4 percent. Brown has only one win on the dirt in the Breeders’ Cup, and that was with Good Magic in this race at Del Mar in 2017.

Like others, he will have to travel west and go two turns for the first time with only two starts in his career.

Status of the favorite - Vulnerable.

Juvenile Fillies
Echo Zulu, 7-5 (Steve Asmussen / Ricardo Santana Jr.) From the first crop of Gun Runner, this flashy filly won all three starts of her by margins of 5 1/2, 4, and 7 1/4 lengths. In her two most recent starts, she was an odds-on favorite as she won the Spinaway (G1) and Frizette (G1). Echo Zulu broke her maiden from a stalking position and crushed the Frizette field on the lead.

The Juvenile Fillies has been the most predictable of the Breeders’ Cup races with 18 favorites finding the winner’s circle.

Status of the favorite - Likely winner.

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