The Breeders’ Cup Classic, the most valuable race run in the US. It is a fitting conclusion to the world championships, especially so this year, with a very deep, talented field of runners set for a tactical battle that may mean the 2021 Classic goes down as a race for the ages.

Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic

In some years the Breeders’ Cup Classic features a standout performer, in others the field is deep and competitive. This year belongs firmly in the second category, with six horses having a legitimate shot at the title in a race that owes a good deal of its intrigue to the tactical possibilities on offer.

To add extra spice, the two market leaders are stablemates at Brad Cox’s barn, two similar-looking greys but very different horses whose running styles will be crucial to the outcome. First among these almost-equals is the five-year-old Knicks Go, a one-dimensional front-runner but absolutely brilliant at that discipline. Leave Knicks Go alone on the pace and he’s practically unbeatable, as he demonstrated in the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga in August when running his rivals ragged.

Knicks Go is seven-for-nine since the start of 2020, his only defeats coming in one-turn contests – and the Classic is two turns. But there’s a big ‘but’: he has never raced at ten furlongs, so the stamina question is a valid one, and there are plenty of pace factors who will deny him the easy lead upon which he thrives.

His barnmate is last year’s champion juvenile Essential Quality, whose credentials are rock solid. He is eight-for-nine lifetime, his only defeat coming when fourth behind Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby, and subsequent victories in the Grade 1 Belmont and Grade 1 Travers stamp him as pro-tem leader of his generation.

Essential Quality is an uncomplicated animal, a confirmed stayer and an unflashy type, always doing enough to win without needing to light the fireworks. He is at his most effective when stalking a fast pace, pouncing at the top of the stretch and grinding his rivals into submission, and the way the Classic is likely to be run will suit him.

That will be partly down to Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, whose tainted victory at Churchill Downs is best discussed elsewhere. Medina Spirit – whose trainer Bob Baffert has won four Classics – led at every call in the ‘Roses’, at every call in a stakes at Del Mar over a mile, and again when punching his ticket for this in the Grade 1 Awesome Again at Santa Anita, when he ran Stilleto Boy, Express Train and Tripoli right out of town with a five-length score.

Volatile chemicals don’t mix, and when Knicks Go and Medina Spirit burn it up off the front, something will have to give. It’s obviously possible that both horses will compromise their chance in a frantic speed duel, and whatever the outcome, neither horse will get the scenario they prefer.

Waiting to strike

Behind the pace there will be plenty of talent waiting for the moment to strike. Essential Quality will be there, as will Hot Rod Charlie, who nailed his first Grade 1 win – to squash accusations that he is no more than a nearly-horse – when dominating a not over-strong Pennsylvania Derby.

‘Chuck’ went gate-to-wire there but he doesn’t have to, and ‘won’ the Haskell after sitting just behind the lead. The pace set-up here will be perfect for Hot Rod Charlie and he is peaking at the right time, but the suspicion remains that he is vulnerable at the very highest level.

Another leading contender coming to the boil is Art Collector, who rebounded from a quiet spell with three straight wins, latterly in the Grade 1 Woodward at Belmont Park, where he twelved his rivals to death off the front and kept rolling to the wire. He likes the lead but won’t have a chance of setting such steady fractions this time, so will be poised in a stalking role – like Knicks Go, though, he has never won at the Classic distance, and this represents the toughest test of his career. His trainer Bill Mott has won two Classics but Art Collector needs to step up if he is to make it three, whereas most of his rivals are already up.

A change in tactics has been the making of Max Player, who has shown considerable improvement since being sent forward in his races to sit just behind the speed. In the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga he came down on the front-runner like a wolf on the fold and won going away by four lengths, and we haven’t seen sufficient of this ‘new’ Max Player to know how far his progress will take him.

The pace scenario will be ideal for Max Player – although he’s not alone in that – and he seems the only horse in the race who hasn’t already laid all his cards on the table, who may have something we haven’t already seen. Trainer Steve Asmussen has won the Classic twice, including the only one so far run at Del Mar.

Longshot options

The last third of the field are a rung below the others, which is reflected in their dismissive odds. Even course-and-distance Grade 1 Pacific Classic winner Tripoli will have his work cut out to fight his way into the mix, given that his closing style may see the door opening for him only after the other horses have bolted. He was undone in that fashion behind Medina Spirit last time and that Pacific Classic win was his first at Del Mar in six attempts.

Track form is on the side of Express Train – he’s three-for-five at Del Mar – but he has never shown the class required to make it at Grade 1 level, a comment that also applies to Stilleto Boy, who has never even won at Graded level and can’t be expected to suddenly change that fact in the hottest race of the year.

Betting Prediction for The Breeders’ Cup Classic

Whoever wins the tactical battle will win the Classic, and the race appears set up for one of the chasing posse to stalk and pounce and score. Essential Quality has done almost everything right in his career and has a very strong chance, but the recent improvement shown by MAX PLAYER hints that there may be even better to come, and the race will be run to suit him.

Breeders’ Cup Classic pre-entry future book odds

BC Classic Contenders Horse Racing Odds courtesy of Jazzsports Field Facts
Knicks Go+200Won G1 Whitney and Pegasus World Cup in 2021; brilliant front-runner but never raced this distance
Essential Quality+225G1 Belmont, Travers and BC Juvenile winner; last year’s champion juvenile, eight-for-nine lifetime
Medina Spirit+600Back to form when winning G1 Awesome Again; won Kentucky Derby, hit the board all nine starts
Hot Rod Charlie+650Won G1 Pennsylvania Derby; placed Kentucky Derby and Belmont but only three-for-11 lifetime
Max Player+700Winner of G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup; much improved since tactical change to race near the pace
Art Collector+800G1 Woodward win latest was lifetime best; won last three races but has never won at this distance
Tripoli+1800Won G1 Pacific Classic over course and distance; only one-for-six at Del Mar, behind Medina Spirit latest
Express Train+3500Won G2 San Diego Handicap here; three-for-five at Del Mar but zero-for-six at Grade 1 level
Stilleto Boy+4000Runner-up G1 Awesome Again behind Medina Spirit; never won a Graded stakes, two-for-ten lifetime
Breeders Cup Classic odds

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