The 38th running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic is Saturday at Del Mar. It is horse racings’ Championship event and serves as the unofficial finale of the 2021 season before attention shifts to preparing for the 2022 Kentucky Derby during the late fall, early winter, and into next spring.
The Classic will be broadcast live on NBC and will be the last race on a card of 12 – nine of which are World Championship races. It has a scheduled post time of 8:40.
Here’s a look at the field.
1. TRIPOLI [ML 15-1] Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr. Trainer: John Sadler. TRIPOLI got on the BC Classic trail with a sharp 1 ¼-length Win in the 1 ¼-mile Pacific Classic Stakes at Del Mar on August 21st, a breakthrough effort considering he had only Won three times in 13 prior starts, largely competing against Allowance company. In his Pacific Classic Win, Tripoli saved ground while stalking the leader and moved adroitly on the rail to scoot clear in early stretch on his way to an easy Victory. Following that score, however, he regressed to 4th place by 8 ¼ lengths to MEDINA SPIRIT in the Awesome Again Stakes on October 2nd at Santa Anita. Overall, he has assembled a solid career record without ever really establishing himself as a Grade 1-caliber racehorse, and despite his top-level Win in Del Mar’s signature race he still takes a back seat to most of the other starters here.
2. EXPRESS TRAIN [ML 20-1] Jockey: Victor Espinoza. Trainer: John Shirreffs. This locally-based runner is a longshot in the Classic and seeks to recapture his early 2021 form following two consecutive subpar efforts. He’s 3-for-5 at Del Mar for his career, including a Win in this year’s San Diego Handicap. Overall, however, his form looks suspect when compared with formidable East Coast invaders as well as fellow SoCal-based contenders. Trainer John Shirreffs has had prior success in the Classic, Winning the race with Hall of Famer ZENYATTA in 2009. Jockey Victor Espinoza will ride EXPRESS TRAIN for the first time in the Classic; he Won the race in 2015 aboard Horse of the Year AMERICAN PHAROAH.
3. HOT ROD CHARLIE [ML 4-1] Jockey: Flavien Prat. Trainer: Doug O’Neill. After several close-but-not-quite attempts at landing a Grade 1 win, fan favorite Hot Rod Charlie broke through with a 2 ¼-length score in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx on September 25th, and rolls into the Classic in the best shape of his career. This son of Preakness Stakes Winner OXBOW is versatile and proven at the Classic distance, and he has paired well with Flavien Prat over his past four starts. Look for Prat to get HOT ROD CHARLIE involved early, perhaps sitting just off of KNICKS GO, MEDINA SPIRIT, and ART COLLECTOR through the backstretch, and then urge him to make a bid for the lead on the far turn. If Chuck can replicate his effort in the the Pennsylvania Derby (120 speed figure), he stands a good chance of scoring a career-defining Win.
4. ESSENTIAL QUALITY [ML 3-1] Jockey: Luis Saez. Trainer: Brad Cox. This guy has already amassed a fantastic résumé through nine career starts, earning Champion 2-year-old male honors with an undefeated 2020 season and Winning the Belmont Stakes, the Travers, along with three other Graded Stakes. ESSENTIAL QUALITY is remarkably consistent in terms of speed figures, running style, and how he Wins: time and time again he has displayed grit and stamina to rally into contention from a stalking position and out-finish his opponents for close Victories. He did just that in both the Belmont Stakes at 1 ½ miles, defeating HOT ROD CHARLIE by 1 ¼ lengths after a prolonged stretch duel, and his most recent start in the 1 ¼-mile Travers, nipping MIDNIGHT BOURBON by a neck. With several speed horses entered in the Classic, look for regular rider Luis Saez to keep him in mid-pack through the backstretch and then angle him three- or four-wide on the far turn for his customary grinding stretch run. If the early pace indeed turns out to be swift, everything could fall into place for ESSENTIAL QUALITY on Saturday to help elevate his status as one of the best 3-year-olds in the 21st Century.
5. KNICKS GO [ML 5-2] Jockey: Joel Rosario. Trainer: Brad Cox. Ever since KNICKS GO moved to the barn of trainer Brad Cox in early 2020 it’s helped this horse achieve star status. Over the past 16 months, he has Won seven of nine starts, including five Graded Stakes, and earned over $4.8 million. In all those Wins, he’s led at every point of call and never finished less than 2 ¾ lengths in front of his closest challenger at the wire – and they’ve all come around two turns (his two losses earlier this year were around one turn in the Saudi Cup overseas and in the Met Mile at Belmont Park, both were 4th-place finishes). He’s never attempted 1 ¼ miles, nor has he raced at Del Mar. What’s more, in the Classic he figures to finally square off against a field in which other horses possess elite speed as well. Jockey Joel Rosario won’t have nearly as easy of a time getting his mount to the front and then controlling matters thereafter, and the in-race jockey strategizing between Rosario and his fellow pace riders should be fascinating to watch. Even with these concerns, KNICKS GO deserves to be one of the favorites, and if he can outrun his foes once again at a distance he’s never tried, he’ll be a shoo-in for Horse of the Year.
6. ART COLLECTOR [ML 8-1] Jockey: Mike Smith. Trainer: Bill Mott. He rolls into the Classic on a three-race Winning streak and in peak form. After a promising 3-year-old season that ended in disappointment when he was unplaced in both the Preakness Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, he returned in June and ran 6th in a seven-furlong Stakes at Churchill Downs … and hasn’t lost since. The big question for ART COLLECTOR is the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Classic, which he’s never tried before. He’ll also be picking up a new jockey in Hall of Famer Mike Smith, as Luis Saez, who’s been aboard ART COLLECTOR for his three Wins this year, will ride ESSENTIALLY QUALITY. Getting Smith to ride for the Classic is an asset. Big Money Mike leads all jockeys in Breeders’ Cup Wins with 26, and four of those have come in the Classic. ART COLLECTOR profiles as a second-tier player who should offer good odds to those who think he can pull off the upset.
7. STILLETO BOY [ML 30-1] Jockey: Kent Desormeaux. Trainer: Ed Moger Jr. In a race loaded with graded stakes Winners, he deserves to be the longest shot in the Classic field. STILLETO BOY has assembled a solid but far-from-spectacular career record through 10 races, breaking his Maiden in his fifth career start last spring at Oaklawn Park and two races later scoring a 17-1 upset in the Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows. Given the amount of quality lined up in this year’s Classic, he will probably (?) once again be dismissed by the betting public, and in a best-case scenario he could muster a decent stretch rally and pass some tired horses to spice up the exotics considering that he has hit the board in eight out of his 10 starts. Anything more than that would be a major surprise.
8. MEDINA SPIRIT [ML 4-1] Jockey: John Velazquez. Trainer: Bob Baffert. Could he be the X-factor contender in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic? MEDINA SPIRIT along with ART COLLECTOR, should provide a serious pace challenge to KNICKS GO and ensure that that front-running rival does not go unchallenged in the early stages. Unlike ART COLLECTOR, MEDINA SPIRIT has Victories at a mile and a quarter and also on the Del Mar dirt surface. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is back aboard for the seventh straight race, making MEDINA SPIRIT a viable Win candidate in a loaded Classic field who will make an impact on the outcome one way or another by using his speed. Baffert has Won the Classic four times, Velazquez’ lone Victory in the Classic was last year aboard the Baffert trained AUTHENTIC.
9. MAX PLAYER [ML 8-1] Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr. Trainer: Steve Asmussen. This colt has found a new and financially rewarding dimension in 2021 by changing his running style. Formerly a one-dimensional closer who finished 3rd in both the 2020 Belmont Stakes, and Travers Stakes. But in his third start this year MAX PLAYER raced much closer to the pace in the 1 ¼-mile Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park in July, as he outfought MYSTIC GUIDE to Win by a neck. His subsequent start was even better, as he once again tracked the pace and then powered clear to score by four lengths in the 1 ¼-mile Jockey Gold Cup Stakes at Saratoga on September 4th. He hasn’t raced since that effort, but Asmussen has kept him on a steady work-tab at Santa Anita. He should be well-rested and ready to put forth another solid effort at a distance that clearly suits him, and his speed figures from the Suburban and Jockey Club Gold Cup make him a threat to hit the board in a competitive Classic, if not post the upset.
CONCLUSION: The favorite has Won twice and came 2nd twice in the last decade, and 3-year-olds have Won four times. KNICKS GO the Morning Line favorite will face a lot of pressure up front and has never attempted this distance. There are many who will be vying for the early lead in this years Classic so a horse that can settle just off the pace seems like a good play…which by DRB thinking leads us to 3-year-old ESSENTIAL QUALITY. His running style will place him in a good position without getting cooked with the rest of the pacesetters.
The main competition for ESSENTIAL QUALITY will be his rival HOT ROD CHARLIE as well as MAX PLAYER.
All that said, any of the aforementioned horses: #3 HOT ROD CHARLIE, #4 ESSENTIAL QUALITY, #5 KNICKS GO, or #8 MAX PLAYER, could Win and it wouldn’t be a surprise. If you have the bank, put all four in your multi-race wagers. Otherwise use just #3 and #4.
Best of luck no matter how you play it.