By Richard Rosenblatt
For weeks now, Brad Cox has been asked in so many ways to tell us who has the better chance of winning the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Essential Quality or Knicks Go.
His answer is simple: “I can’t separate them, but I’m excited about being in this position with both horses.”
A few days ago, for example, this question was posed to the trainer: If you had $10 to bet on one of your Classic horses, which way would you go?
His response: $5 to win on each.
Finally, the 38th Breeders’ Cup has is here, at Del Mar, with thousands of fans in the grandstand, without race-day medication, and boasting a stellar lineup of thoroughbred stars from around the world.
Knicks Go, winner of the 2020 BC Dirt Mile, is the 5-2 morning-line favorite in a nine-horse field, with Essential Quality, the 2020 Juvenile winner, the 3-1 second choice.
Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Medina Spirit leads the charge of challengers along with Pennsylvania Derby (G1) winner Hot Rod Charlie and a few other Grade 1 winners on a roll, Art Collector and Max Player. This Classic should be a doozy of a race.
A hot pace is all but assured, with Knicks Go and jockey Joel Rosario set to shoot to front from post 5. Medina Spirit (John Velazquez, 4-1) and Art Collector (Mike Smith, 8-1) are likely to be out front, too, with Essential Quality (Luis Saez) not far back, along with Max Player (Ricardo Santana, Jr., 8-1).
From there … well let’s have Cox size up what might take place with his horses.
“I think it does set up well for (Essential Quality),’’ he said. “I think Luis obviously does knows him extremely well, and I’m putting him in a good position. That’s the one great thing about Essential Quality. He’s able to adjust to the pace and that’s, that what makes him so dangerous each and every run. We’re probably getting a pace similar or maybe even hotter than it was in the Kentucky Derby.”
As for Knicks Go, Cox said: “It is very rare for a horse to do what Knicks Go can do. You don’t always see horses that are capable of running as quick as he can and clearing. And he really accelerates in the turns.
“… We are going to be very aggressive, and hopefully he gets the lead going into the first turn and he’s able to clear off. I think that gives him his best opportunity to win.”
No telling how this one will turn out since 5-year-old Knicks Go has never run as far as 1 ¼ miles, and the likes of Derby runners Medina Spirit, Hot Rod Charlie and Max Player have. History says it will be a tough task for Knicks Go.
Knicks Go comes into the race off three straight wire-to-wire wins by a combined 18 ¾ lengths, most recently a four-length victory in the Lukas Classic (G3) at Churchill Downs on Oct. 20; Essential Quality is making his first start since winning the Travers (G1) at the Spa on Aug. 28, a layoff of more than nine weeks.
Embattled trainer Bob Baffert sends out Medina Spirit looking for his fifth Classic win. Medina Spirit comes into the race off a five-length victory in the Awesome Again (G1). His Derby win remains in question after a post-race positive for a prohibited race-day medication.
“He’s never run a bad race. He’s a good horse,’’ Baffert told drf.com this week. “Every time he runs, he proves how good a horse he is. He’s thrilling to watch run. He has a lot of heart.”
Bill Mott is looking for a third Classic win with Art Collector; he won with Cigar in 1995 and Drosselmeyer in 2011.
“We know Knicks Go is going to bolt out of there and he’s right inside of us and Medina Spirit is outside, so we hope he is able to stalk, but you don’t know until the race unfolds,” Mott said. “We have a good group of horses who are doing really well. Whether they’re good enough or not, we’ll see Saturday.”
Future Stars Friday kicked off with five Breeders’ Cup races for 2-year-olds. With the late scratch of Juvenile (G1) morning-line favorite Jack Christopher, Baffert’s Corniche was the likely top choice, while unbeaten Echo Zulu (4-5) was the favorite in the Juveniles Fillies (G1).
Leading up to Saturday’s Classic, a parade of champions will be headliners in just about every other Breeders’ Cup race:
The Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) features Gamine, the Baffert-trained defending champ looking for another Eclipse Award. The 4-year-old daughter of Into Mischief is 9-for-10, including wire-to-wire wins in her last five starts, most recently the Ballerina (G1) at the Spa on Aug. 28. The race has a field of just five.
The Turf Sprint (G1) has to Breeders’ Cup winners from last year – defending champ Glass Slippers at 6-1 and 2020 Juvenile Turf Sprint winner Golden Pal as the 7-2 favorite.
The Dirt Mile (G1) should be a dandy with 4-5 favorite Life Is Good, with four victories in five starts, going up against Met Mile (G1) winner Silver State.
Audarya is back to try for a second straight win in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1). A year ago, mare bred in France won by a neck over Rushing Fall. The 5-year-old is the 5-1 on the morning-line, with War Like Goddess – 6-for-7 – is the 7-2 favorite.
The Sprint (G1) at 6 furlongs will be mad dash to the wire with Jackie’s Warrior the strong 6-5 favorite and riding a three-race win streak, most recently a 6 3/4-length romp in the Gallant Bob (G2) at Parx on Sept. 25. The 3-year-old trained by Steve Asmussen faces a slew of older horses in 7-year-olds C Z Rocket and Matera Sky, and 6-year-old Firenze Fire, seeking a first win in his fifth BC race.
The Mile (G1) on the turf includes one of Charlie Appleby’s best in Spaces Blues, the 3-1 top choice in a full field of 14. Other familiar names ready to contend include local favorite Mo Forza (5-1), Raging Bull (15-1), and Got Stormy (10-1).
The Distaff (G1) has one its strongest fields ever, with top female Letruska the 8-5 favorite in a field of 11 fillies and mares going 1 1/8 miles. Two Kentucky Oaks (G1) winners are in the field, this year’s winner Malathaat (4-1) and last year’s winner Shedaresthedevil (4-1). Baffert has a pair – Private Mission and As Time Goes By and Chad Brown has a pair in Royal Flag and Dunbar Road. Letruska has won her last four going wire-to-wire. A win here, and an upset in the Classic could give her a shot at Horse of the Year honors.
The Turf (G1) features another returning champion in Tarnawa. The 5-year-old mare won last year’s edition by one length over Magical and is the 9-5 choice race in a field of 12 with scratches on Thursday of United and Domestic Spending. Tarnawa ran a close second to Torquator Tasso in the Prix de l’Arc Triomphe at Longchamp on Oct. 3.
|1||Tripoli||15-1||Irad Ortiz,Jr||John Sadler|
|2||Express Train||20-1||Victor Espinoza||John Shirreffs|
|3||Hot Rod Charlie||4-1||Flavien Prat||Doug O’Neill|
|4||Essential Quality||3-1||Luis Saez||Brad Cox|
|5||Knicks Go||5-2||Joel Rosario||Brad Cox|
|6||Art Collector||8-1||Mike Smith||William Mott|
|7||Stiletto Boy||30-1||Kent Desormeaux||Ed Moger,Jr.|
|8||Medina Spirit||4-1||John Velazquez||Bob Baffert|
|9||Max Player||8-1||Ricardo Santana, Jr.||Steven Asmussen|
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.