Separating the top six names in the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic should prove difficult beyond eliminating one or two from the top win slot. Perhaps deciding on one definite winner is impossible, as the older horses Knicks Go, Max Player and Art Collector, and the 3-year-olds Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit all took different paths to the upcoming showdown.
Even though post positions and final jockey assignments are not released yet, here are early thoughts on which horses look most playable in less than two weeks, with odds from Horse Racing Nation. Keep in mind, the selections below are tentative until all the information is available.
The Breeders’ Cup Classic will be run on Nov. 6 at Del Mar.
Essential Quality, 7-2 (Tapit – Brad Cox/TBA – 9: 8-0-0 - $4,215,144): Given his lower price, the probable second choice brings modest TimeformUS Speed Figures into the Classic. However, this colt’s determination to finish first remains a positive. At the start of Essential Quality’s campaign, he won the Southwest Stakes (G3) over slop and the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) before finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, just one length behind Medina Spirit. After the Derby, Essential Quality renewed the winning streak by taking the Belmont Stakes over Hot Rod Charlie, followed by the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) and Travers Stakes (G1). In this heated pace situation, expect him to stalk behind Knicks Go, Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie. While Essential Quality fought off a nice 3-year-old with a future in Midnight Bourbon in the Travers, he still needs to pass more than one high-quality runner in the Classic. He is a major contender, but he does need to run a bit faster. Win contender.
Hot Rod Charlie, 9-2 (Oxbow – Doug O’Neill/TBA – 11: 3-2-3- $2,171,200): If nothing else, Hot Rod Charlie’s ability to withstand a fast pace is his biggest asset. He posted fast opening fractions of 22.78 and 46.49 in the Belmont Stakes in June before getting tired in the stretch and grudgingly letting Essential Quality pass him. After a disqualification in the Haskell Stakes (G1) next time for causing Midnight Bourbon to fall, Hot Rod Charlie won the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx, setting another fast pace with fractions of 23.52 and 47.07. Although those numbers do not look fast, TimeformUS gave high pace figures of 156 for each fraction. Hot Rod Charlie’s victory at Parx did not come without controversy, as he blew the turn when Midnight Bourbon began inching closer. Regardless, he still posted an impressive 133 TimeformUS Speed Figure, which puts him on par with Knicks Go. Hot Rod Charlie also can sit behind Knicks Go and Medina Spirit and hope to get first run before Essential Quality comes along. The one major positive on his side is value, as he figures to go off at higher odds than Knicks Go and Essential Quality with roughly the same ability as both of them. Value pick.
Medina Spirit, 6-1 (Protonico – Bob Baffert/TBA – 9: 5-3-1 - $2,525,200): From a betting psychology standpoint, this is an intriguing horse. The controversy over Medina Spirit’s failed drug test and backlash against trainer Bob Baffert has resulted in fewer fans for the reigning Kentucky Derby winner, which could result in attractive odds. On paper, there is nothing wrong with Medina Spirit’s form. After his Derby win, he faded to third in the Preakness Stakes with significant pressure on the far side. His 1 1/4-length return win in the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar was fine as a starting point. Then, Medina Spirit took a step forward to crush a field of older horses by five lengths in the Awesome Again Stakes (G1) earlier this month. On the negative side, the presence of Knicks Go works against Medina Spirit, as both horses run best when controlling the pace. Medina Spirit also needs to run faster than his 127 on TimeformUS in the Awesome Again. Maybe the other jockeys will let Medina Spirit secure the lead out of overcaution. On the second concern, there is no reason he cannot improve in his third start off the bench. Similar to Hot Rod Charlie, Medina Spirit is expected to offer attractive odds despite his natural ability and status as Kentucky Derby champion. Value pick.
Knicks Go, 5-2 (Paynter – Brad Cox/TBA – 23: 9-3-1 - $5,553,135): Even though Knicks Go is a one-dimensional speed horse who might face significant pressure in the Classic, he is too fast to dismiss. In his most recent start, Knicks Go won by four lengths in the Lukas Classic (G3) with a 130 TimeformUS Speed Figure. Two races ago, he won the Whitney Stakes (G1) by 4 1/2 lengths with a 130 on TimeformUS as well. Three races ago, Knicks Go took the Cornhusker Handicap (G3) by 10 1/4 lengths with a dominating 136 on TimeformUS. Earlier in the year, he also won the Pegasus World Cup (G1) by 2 3/4 lengths with a 133. The concern is that he might not perform the same without controlling the pace. In the Saudi Cup with another major speed horse present in Charlatan, Knicks Go let Charlatan take the early lead before challenging him around the turn. Knicks Go could not put away Charlatan, and then he gave way in the stretch and even lost third. What if Medina Spirit takes a slim half-length lead ahead of Knicks Go? On the other hand, if Knicks Go does find a way to secure the lead, the race might be over early. Win contender.
Idol, 50-1 (Curlin – Richard Baltas/TBA – 7: 3-2-1 - $416,964): One of the old handicapping rules states to forgive poor runs off a layoff. Idol ran a non-threatening sixth in the Awesome Again while steadily losing ground throughout the race. But the effort came after nearly seven months on the shelf since his last start. From December 2020 to March, this was a consistent horse who performed well against the older dirt routers in Southern California. Idol ran second in the San Antonio Stakes (G2), third in the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) and won the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) with a closing move to beat Express Train by a half-length at the wire. If Idol returns to his winter and spring form, he could pick up third or fourth at gigantic odds with a hot pace in front of him. Use underneath.
Tripoli, 15-1 (Kitten’s Joy – John Sadler/TBA – 15: 4-3-3 - $829,960): Watch Tripoli’s trip closely in the Awesome Again. He was kept extra wide on the first turn by Medina Spirit’s stablemate Azul Coast. Azul Coast then traveled in the three path on the far side to act as a buffer in case Tripoli tried to challenge the pacesetter Medina Spirit early. Tripoli made a wide move on the far turn when Azul Coast folded. But at that point, Tripoli had lost a ton of ground and did not sustain the bid. Two starts ago, Tripoli won the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic (G1) on this course, albeit with a far easier ground-saving trip. Given Tripoli’s troubles in the Awesome Again, he probably deserves another chance from bettors, at least for a bottom slot. Pay attention to Tripoli’s post position at the Breeders’ Cup Classic draw carefully and make sure he is clear of any stablemates to Medina Spirit, if any of them show up. Use underneath.
Max Player, 8-1 (Honor Code – Steven Asmussen/TBA – 11: 4-1-2 - $1,252,500): Changing running styles brought Max Player to a new level. Instead of running as a deep closer who finishes third or fourth, Max Player began to show more speed in his past two starts, and that led to him picking up wins in the Suburban Stakes (G2) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). In the latter race, Max Player won by four lengths over Happy Saver, the defending JCGC winner. Max Player meets tougher opponents in this spot. But remember, Max Player did outkick Mystic Guide in his narrow Suburban win. Mystic Guide was considered one of the top dirt routers in training after his win in the Dubai World Cup in March. Max Player needs to run faster, though, as his TimeformUS Speed Figure of 123 for beating Mystic Guide probably cannot earn him the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Although the recent improvement in speed and the ability to finish off race are both great to see, Max Player fits better in the bottom slots in this loaded Classic. Use underneath.
Express Train, 20-1 (Union Rags – John Shirreffs/TBA – 14: 4-4-3 - $695,800): Where is his early speed? Express Train has run a closing third in the Awesome Again and sixth in the Pacific Classic in his last two starts. The last time he made use of his early speed came in the local San Diego Handicap (G2) in July, when he pressed Rushie and put him away before holding on against Tripoli and Royal Ship. This race is possibly not the best spot to bring the old speed back, with Knicks Go and Medina Spirit present. But he also can stalk the pace, as shown in his runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) in March. On another note about the Big Cap effort, it is quite disappointing he could not finish off the deal against a closing Idol after holding a two-length lead at one point in the stretch. His 0-for-3 record at 1 1/4 miles is notable as well. He misses the cut in this analysis. Toss.
Art Collector, 10-1 (Bernardini – William Mott/TBA – 15: 8-1-0 - $1,535,305): Under trainer Bill Mott’s care, Art Collector has transformed into a winning machine by taking the Alydar Stakes at Saratoga, Charles Town Classic (G2) and more recently the Woodward Stakes (G1) at Belmont. He won the Alydar and Woodward by setting the pace with moderate fractions, but his Charles Town Classic win came after pressing the rejuvenated Sleepy Eyes Todd following moderate fractions as well. In this spot, Art Collector’s slower type of early speed puts him in a stalker position. He might give the leaders about three or fourth lengths in the early stages before attempting to make a move. But can Art Collector win against the Breeders’ Cup Classic field? His pair of 123s on TimeformUS for the Woodward and Charles Town Classic are well below what it takes to capture this race. Siding against this horse in the top position is hard, as Setting the Pace blog readers might remember him as the top selection in his last three wins. Regardless, there is no loyalty in horse betting. He might fight on well enough for a minor check, but that is his limit. Use underneath.
Stilleto Boy, 30-1 (Shackleford – Ed Moger Jr./TBA – 10: 2-3-3 - $324,675): He had a nice second-place finish in the Awesome Again. Although Medina Spirit beat him by five lengths, Stilleto Boy still put two lengths on the third-place finisher Express Train to secure the runner-up position in a Grade 1 race. In the early stages of the Awesome Again, he was only two or three lengths off of Medina Spirit, which means he ran at a decent clip for most of the race as well. Two starts ago, Stilleto Boy ran an even third behind Medina Spirit in the Shared Belief Stakes. Four starts ago, Stilleto Boy won the Iowa Derby by 4 1/2 lengths with a 116 on TimeformUS. Forget about his disappointing run on turf in the local La Jolla Stakes (G3) in early August. The Classic pace scenario is not in his favor, as he likes to run fairly close to the leaders, if not set the pace. Chasing Knicks Go, Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie early on might discourage him this time around. Look for Stilleto Boy down the road in the winter and spring set of races at Santa Anita for older dirt routers. Toss.
Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit look like the best value plays on top.
Neither horse is going to fall below fourth choice in betting, but their abilities and accomplishments to this point are good enough to show they both offer quality.
Studying the post draw will become especially important. In most cases with multiple speed horses, the inside speed takes the worst of a contested pace. Medina Spirit is better off drawing outside, rather than taking all the heat close to the rail.