2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Contenders
By US Racing Team
The field is set for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar on Saturday, the grand finale of the $31 million, 14-race, two-day Breeders’ Cup. Here are the updated profiles, with post positions and odds for the nine-horse field. The field is listed by post position. Profiles were written by usracing.com contributors Ed McNamara, Margaret Ransom, and Jenny Kellner.
By Ed McNamara
This 4-year-old never competed on dirt until June 9, when he won a preliminary allowance by a half-length. Two races later, he paid $15 in the Pacific Classic (G1), perhaps the weakest “Win and You’re In” race of the year. No matter, it gave Tripoli a free ticket to the Breeders’ Cup, so he’s running.
Trainer John Sadler admitted that without the automatic berth, Tripoli would not be in the Classic. Hronis Racing would have had to pay a $75,000 pre-entry fee and a $75,000 entry fee. “We’re not putting up $150,000,” Sadler told drf.com.
After two wins and a second in three races on the main track, Tripoli was never involved in the Awesome Again (G1), finishing fourth, 8 1/4 lengths behind Medina Spirit after a wide trip. That no-show cost regular rider Tiago Pereira the mount. The switch is a major upgrade, because his replacement is Irad Ortiz, Jr., who is going for his fourth consecutive Eclipse Award. It seems most unlikely that Tripoli will give him his second Classic victory.
The son of distance influence Kitten’s Joy won at the Classic distance of 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar and has some competitive speed figures and final fractions, but he’s never faced the likes of Knicks Go, Essential Quality, Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie. He just doesn’t class up, so he’s up against it.
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: TRIPOLI
Post position: 1
Jockey: Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Trainer: John Sadler
Owner: Hronis Racing
Career record: 15-4-3-3
Career earnings: $829,960
Top Equibase speed figure: 109
Pedigree: Kitten’s Joy-Love Train, by Tapit
Running style: Speed/stalk
Betting advice: Ortiz is brilliant, but it’s horse racing, not jockey racing, and expecting Tripoli to win is delusional. No chance.
Notes: Sadler ended his long schneid in the Breeders’ Cup with favorite Accelerate in the 2018 Classic at Churchill Downs. He’d been 0-for-44 at the Breeders’ Cup over 30 years … Hronis Racing, owner of Tripoli, also owned Accelerate. Kosta and Peter Hronis named Tripoli for their father, who was born in Tripoli, Greece … The family owns and operates an 8,000-acre grape and citrus farm in California … Tripoli breezed 5 furlongs in 1:00 Oct. 23 at Santa Anita. “Real nice,” Sadler told drf.com. “Had him going out seven furlongs in 1:25.”
By Margaret Ransom
After a strong runner-up finish in his debut back in 2019, Express Train broke his maiden by 14½ lengths over the Del Mar main track. His stakes debut produced a fourth-place finish in his third start in the American Pharoah Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita, which produced a significant layoff.
Since then, Express Train has picked up multiple graded stakes wins and placings (wins in the San Pasqual and San Diego handicaps — both Garde 2s — and placings in the Grade 1 Malibu, Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup). He enters the Classic off a third-place finish in the Awesome Again Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita.
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: EXPRESS TRAIN
Post position: 2
Jockey: Juan Hernandez
Trainer: John Shirreffs
Owner: C.R.K. Stables (Lee and Susan Searing)
Career record: 14-4-4-3
Career earnings: $695,800
Top Equibase speed figure: 111
Pedigree: Union Rags-I’m a Flake, by Mineshaft
Running style: Closer
Betting advice: The best thing about Express Train’s running style is his tactical turn of foot. He can be placed close to the pace if the speed doesn’t develop or sit father off if things in front are quickly. He’s got a ton of talent and pedigree to run all day, but he hasn’t posted any kind of a number to suggest he can run with the top choices.
Notes: John Shirreffs most famously trained the great mare Zenyatta to her Classic victory in 2008, as well as her Distaff score (Ladies Classic then) in 2008… he also saddled Life is Sweet to a Distaff victory in 2008… Jockey Juan Hernandez has ridden two Breeders’ Cup runners with a second aboard longshot Anneau d’Or in the 2019 Juvenile… C.R.K. stable has had five starters and six starts in the Breeders’ Cup, led by Switch who was second and third in the 2011, 2012 Filly & Mare Sprint, respectively.`
HOT ROD CHARLIE
By Margaret Ransom
This son of 2013 Preakness (G1) winner Oxbow has had a very interesting year, to say the least. Nonetheless, the Doug O’Neill trainee heads into the Classic as one of the better 3-year-olds and one to pay attention to when making your wagers.
Hot Rod Charlie, named for a drinking game the co-owning Boat Stable group used to play in college, finally got his Grade 1 victory in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) in September after coming close in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Belmont Stakes (G1) and Haskell Stakes (G1). He finished first in the Haskell but was disqualified for a hotly-debated incident in the stretch drive.
Whether it was due to the limited use whip rule in New Jersey or nonchalance by jockey Flavien Prat, Hot Rod Charlie came over in the stretch and bumped rival Midnight Bourbon hard, causing him to clip heels and stumble and toss jockey Paco Lopez to the track.
Nobody was injured, except for maybe the bettors who had him to win and his connections, who lost out on the winner’s share of the $1 million purse.
He had his next-to-last work over his home track of Santa Anita on Oct. 24, where he posted a 7-furlong effort in 1:26 3/5, which was designed as a simulation of what his Breeders’ Cup trip may look like, according to O’Neill.
“He sat off a workmate and there were a couple others out there from other barns, so he kind of sat in behind three horses, split ‘em turning for home and finished up good,” O’Neill said. “He had a taste of what the Classic could look like. He’s versatile, so we have options.”
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: HOT ROD CHARLIE
Post position: 3
Jockey: Flavien Prat
Trainer: Doug O’Neill
Owners: Roadrunner Racing (Greg Helm), Bill Strauss, Gainesway Stable and Boat Racing (former Brown University football players Patrick O’Neill (the trainer’s nephew), Eric Armagost, Dan Giovacchini, Reiley Higgins and Alex Quoyeser)
Career record: 11-3-2-3
Career earnings: $2,171,200
Top Equibase speed figure: 120
Pedigree: Oxbow-Indian Miss, by Indian Charlie
Color: Dark bay or brown
Running style: Stalker
Betting advice: This horse has tremendous figures – speed, class, and pace – and has been improving with every start. He’s also got tremendous heart to go with natural talent and if he’s not a top selection, he’s a must-use in all exotics.
Notes: Doug O’Neill has had 58 Breeders’ Cup starters since his first, Decarchy, finished 12th in the 2003 Mile. His winners include Stevie Wonderboy (2005 Juvenile), Thor’s Echo (2006 Sprint), Mayfield (2007 Filly & Mare Sprint), Goldencents (2013 Dirt Mile) and Nyquist (2015 Juvenile) … Flavien Prat has ridden 46 Breeders’ Cup mounts with three winners – Obviously (2016 Turf Sprint), Battle of Midway (2017 Dirt Mile), Storm the Court (2019 Juvenile)… this is a first Breeders’ Cup starter for the ownership group… Hot Rod Charlie runs for charity, a portion of his earnings go to Jake Panus Walk On Football Endowed Scholarship, named for the late son of The Jockey Club’s communications director who was killed at age 16 in a car accident; and to the Melanoma Research Alliance, the type of cancer that claimed the life of O’Neill’s brother and father… dam Indian Miss also produced Breeders’ Cup winner and champion sprinter Mitole.
By Ed McNamara
How do you knock a horse who’s never done anything wrong? Well, in the days leading up to the Classic, many people will try.
They’ll say Essential Quality’s speed figures are very good but not great, and that unlike his flashy stablemate Knicks Go, he doesn’t blow away the opposition. Essential Quality’s biggest margin in his eight victories is 4 1/4 lengths, with an average of 1 3/4. Knicks Go’s average in his last seven wins is more than six lengths. He was geared down in three of them, so his dominance was even greater.
You can compare trainer Brad Cox’s pair, who will be the favorites in the Classic, to baseball sluggers. Knicks Go is like the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton, who hits the ball harder and farther than anybody. Essential Quality’s power doesn’t dazzle but he always comes through in the clutch. He won the Blue Grass (G2) and Travers (G1) by a neck despite trouble at the start.
The best horse of his generation never has run a bad race, and only an endlessly wide trip in the Kentucky Derby (G1) has kept him from being 9-for-9. Unlike Knicks Go, who’s never tried 1 1/4 miles, Essential Quality is a proven stayer, having won the 1 1/4-mile Travers and the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (G1).
Essential Quality surged the final furlong of the Travers in 23 seconds, about as fast as a thoroughbred can finish a 10-furlong race on dirt.
“The mile and a quarter isn’t going to be an issue for him at all,” Cox said. “He’s able to adapt to the pace, and Luis (Saez) will put him in a good spot. He never really gets tired, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be coming down the lane.”
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: ESSENTIAL QUALITY
Post position: 4
Jockey: Luis Saez
Trainer: Brad Cox
Owner: Godolphin LLC
Career record: 9-8-0-0
Career earnings: $4,215,144
Best Equibase speed rating: 109
Pedigree: Tapit-Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality
Running style: Stalker
Betting advice: I’ll be playing Essential Quality to win. With Knicks Go, Derby winner Medina Spirit and the talented Hot Rod Charlie also drawing money, the odds will be around 3-1. That’s great value.
Notes: Essential Quality breezed 6 furlongs in 1:12.40 on Oct. 23 at Churchill Downs. “It was a real good work, it didn’t take much out of him at all,” Cox said. He had three 5-furlong works earlier in October, going :59 4/5, :59 1/5 and 1:01. He’s never been flashy in the mornings, doing just enough … Negative stats: Saez is 1-for-34 in the Breeders’ Cup and 0-for-2 in the Classic, finishing second in 2013 (Will Take Charge) and fifth last year (Maximum Security). Godolphin has nine Cup victories but is 0-for-14 in the Classic … Jimmy Bell, head of Godolphin’s U.S. operations, on Essential Quality’s essential quality: “The really good horses just show up and find a way to get things done, and he has seemed to do that every start. Consistency has been his hallmark.” The numbers bear that out. He’s run his top Equibase Speed Figure (109) four times (Blue Grass, Derby, Belmont, Travers).
By Ed McNamara
He’s been alone on the lead in seven of his last nine wins, with an average margin of more than six lengths. All the victories were around two turns, and both losses (fourth in the Saudi Cup and Met Mile) were around one turn.
If the Classic were run at 1 1/8 miles, Knicks Go would look almost unbeatable, but it’s 1 1/4 miles, a distance he never has tried. Trainer Brad Cox thinks he can get the extra furlong but admits it puts the gray streak in the gray area.
“I guess there’s always a little bit of a concern,” Cox said. “But I’ve always been a big believer that if you have a tremendous amount of speed like he has and you clear off and get a breather, a mile and an eighth and beyond is a good thing. Speed on the dirt is incredibly dangerous.”
Knicks Go’s 6-furlong work in 1:12.40 on Oct. 23 at Churchill Downs boosted Cox’s confidence. “It was very good, as good as he’s ever worked,” he said.
Another major plus is rider Joel Rosario, who has lived in the winner’s circle the past two months. He has the rare combination of soft hands and bullish strength, and if anyone can help Knicks Go get the extra 220 yards, it’s Rosario.
“Joel fits him very well,” Cox said. “Speed is Knicks Go’s weapon, and he can run the other horses off their feet. I know it’s the toughest race he’s ever run in, and the deepest competition, but I think we’ve done as much as we can with him to get him ready to go a mile and a quarter.”
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: KNICKS GO
Post position: 5
Jockey: Joel Rosario
Trainer: Brad Cox
Owner: Korea Racing Authority
Career record: 23-9-3-1
Career earnings: $5,553,135
Top Equibase speed figure: 118
Pedigree: Paynter-Kosmo’s Buddy, by Outflanker
Running style: Front-runner
Betting advice: Play him to win only, because he either runs away and hides or tires and finishes out of the money (Saudi Cup, Met Mile). Odds will be short, but if you think he can get clear and handle 1 1/4 miles, send it in.
Notes: Cox’s four Cup victories last year helped win his first Eclipse Award. Besides the Dirt Mile, he took the Juvenile (Essential Quality), Juvenile Fillies Turf (Aunt Pearl) and Distaff (Monomoy Girl) … Rosario, 36, is considered the best jockey never to have won an Eclipse. He and three-time defending champ Irad Ortiz, Jr. are co-favorites this year. Rosario has nine Breeders’ Cup wins, including the 2018 Classic on Accelerate … The name Knicks Go has nothing to do with the NBA team. K-Nicks is a breeding program used by his owner, the Korea Racing Authority.
By Jenny Kellner
Art Collector seems to be more valuable with age – and a Hall of Fame trainer.
The 4-year-old colt is now trained by Bill Mott and has won all three of his races under one of the best conditioners in the game – the Alydar Stakes at Saratoga, the Charles Town Classic (G2), and the Woodward (G1) at Belmont on Oct. 2.
The trainer change was made after Art Collector finished sixth in the Kelly’s Landing at Churchill Downs on June 25. Tommy Drury was the trainer who guided the colt to a win in the 2020 Blue Grass (G2) before the colt was pulled from Kentucky Derby (G1) consideration due to a slight injury a few days before the race.
Art Collector has bounced back with a flurry of victories, and looms as the hot horse in the $6 million BC Classic (G1), going against likely favorites Knicks Go and Essential Quality and Derby winner Medina Spirit.
A horse who likes to be near or on the lead, Art Collector will be ridden for the first time by Hall of Famer Mike Smith — the most successful rider in Breeders’ Cup history. Luis Saez had been the regular rider for Art Collector since Mott took over, but he will be aboard Essential Quality.
The Mott-Smith combo is formidable, making Art Collector a contender likely to go off at odds worth the investment.
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: ART COLLECTOR
Post position: 6
Jockey: Mike Smith
Trainer: Bill Mott
Owner: Bruce Lunsford
Career record: 15-8-1-0
Career earnings: $1,535,305
Top Equibase speed figure: 120
Pedigree: Bernardini-Distorted Legacy, by Distorted
Running style: Front-runner
Betting advice: This guy may be the hot horse in the Classic, looking fantastic during recent gallops at Del Mar, and should be up front with speedsters Knicks Go and Medina Spirit. And with Mike Smith aboard, you must take this colt seriously, and likely with some favorable odds.
Notes: Mike Smith has the most mounts (145), victories (26) and purse earnings ($36.6 million) in Breeders’ Cup history … He’s won the Classic four times – Skip Away (1997), Zenyatta (2009), Drosselmeyer (2011, trained by Mott); and Arrogate (2016) … Luis Saez was aboard all three of Art Collector’s wins with Bill Mott as the trainer … Art Collector ran eighth in the 2020 BC Dirt Mile (G1) … Mott is a 10-time winner in Breeders’ Cup races … Says Mott: “He (Drury) did a great job with this horse and we’re reaping some of the benefits. I would say he beat the best group of horses (in the Woodward) that he’s beaten so far. They were the most established group.”
By Richard Rosenblatt
Back on July 2, Stilleto Boy pulled off an upset in the Iowa Derby as the longest shot on the board at 16-1. Ten days later, Steve Moger shelled out $420,000 for the 3-year-old gelding at the Fasig-Tipton selected horses of racing age sale.
Moger’s brother, Ed, became the new trainer, brought the horse to California from the Midwest under a Del Mar incentive plan, and now they’ll have a chance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Albeit, Stilleto Boy is the longest shot in the nine-horse field at 30-1. But after three races under Moger’s care, a fifth in the La Jolla Handicap (G3) and a third in the Shared Belief (both at Del Mar), and a second in the Awesome Again (G1) behind Medina Spirit, Moger figured why not take a shot.
“I was really happy with his race,’’ Ed Moger, Jr. said of the Awesome Again, where he finished five lengths behind Medina Spirit but ahead of Classic entry Tripoli. “It was a super-tough field.”
Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux was aboard the three California races and will ride him again in the Classic.
Stilleto Boy broke his maiden in his fifth race, winning at Oaklawn Park on April 17. His only other win in 10 career starts was the Iowa Derby.
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: STILLETO BOY
Post position: 7
Jockey: Kent Desormeaux
Trainer: Ed Moger, Jr.
Owner: Steve Moger
Career record: 10-2-3-3
Career earnings: $324,675
Top Equibase speed figure: 106
Pedigree: Shackleford-Rosie’s Ransom, by Marquetry
Running style: Front-runner/stalker
Betting advice: He’s got plenty of racing experience for a 3-year-old, but it’s hard to picture Stilleto Boy figuring in the outcome. He’s 30-1 for a reason, the longest shot in the Classic, and up against at least a half-dozen of the nation’s top horses.
Notes: Under former connections, Stilleto Boy compiled two wins from seven starts at Prairie Meadows and Oaklawn Park … Sire Shackleford won the 2011 Preakness (G1) … Desormeaux has won six Breeders’ Cup races with 96 mounts, the most recent win Roy H in the 2017.
By Ed McNamara
When will we learn whether this gritty little horse with the obscure pedigree will keep the Kentucky Derby (G1) trophy? No one can say when his drug case will be adjudicated, but what we do know is that if Medina Spirit isn’t in front after the first furlong, he doesn’t win.
His need-to-lead style served him well at Churchill Downs, when the other main speed, Rock Your World, broke badly and never got involved. Chances are that Medina Spirit’s front-running tactics won’t be as helpful on Nov. 6 at Del Mar.
Knicks Go is also an all-or-nothing type, and he’s faster early than Medina Spirit. Unlike Medina Spirit, Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie, he’s never gone 1 1/4 miles, which is a key to the plot of the 38th Classic. So is the possibility that Hot Rod Charlie and/or Art Collector will pressure the two speed types.
Medina Spirit never has been out of the money in nine starts, eight of them stakes. He has four wins and two seconds, and his “worst” performance was a third in the Preakness (G1). His quality and courage are undeniable, and trainer Bob Baffert credits “class and determination” for his success. Medina Spirit comes in off a five-length runaway in the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 1 Awesome Again on Oct. 2 at Santa Anita.
“He’s just getting better and better,” Baffert said after the race. “You can see it and he’s getting stronger. What he did today against these horses was pretty amazing.”
Can Medina Spirit perform that well against the toughest field he’s ever faced? It seems unlikely but doubting Baffert in megabucks races often is costly.
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: MEDINA SPIRIT
Post position: 8
Jockey: John Velazquez
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Owner: Zedan Racing Stables
Career record: 9-5-3-1
Career earnings: $2,525,200
Top Equibase speed figure: 110
Pedigree: Protonico-Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed
Color: Dark bay or brown
Running style: Front-runner
Betting advice: Unless you can get 5-1 or 6-1 on Medina Spirit, I’d stay away from him in the win pool. Expecting him to defeat Essential Quality, Knicks Go and Hot Rod Charlie is a big ask. Then again, he did beat Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie in the Derby. If you had him that day, reinvest some of that cash. If you didn’t, think twice.
Notes: Horses trained by Baffert failed five drug tests since May 2020, including Medina Spirit’s post-Derby positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone. The Breeders’ Cup has mandated stricter out-of-competition testing of his runners and greater security at his barn … Baffert, 68, is the all-time leader with 17 Triple Crown wins (seven Derbies, seven Preaknesses, three Belmonts). He also has 17 Breeders’ Cup victories, second to Wayne Lukas’ 20, and the most Breeders’ Cup earnings ($35.895 million) … Baffert has won the Classic five times, including last year with Authentic and John Velazquez aboard.
By Jenny Kellner
Last two times out, Max Player proved he’s not a horse to be overlooked in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
The 4-year-old son of Honor Code improved his profile big-time with victories in the Suburban (G2) and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) – a pair of “Win and You’re In’’ Breeders’ Cup challenge races.
He didn’t beat top-flight competition in those races, but we know he’s a winner and one strong 4-year-old. In 2020, he was the only horse to compete in all three Triple Crown races (third in the Belmont, and fifth in both the Derby and the Preakness).
Trained by Steve Asmussen, who took over for Linda Rice after Max Player won the Withers (G3) late last year, the colt also was sent to Saudi Arabia and ran 11th in the $20 million Saudi Cup in February.
“He’s kind of a funny horse,” Asmussen’s New York-based assistant Toby Sheets said after the Suburban. “He always has more, but sometimes he doesn’t give it. He had a clear trip today and that helped so much. He finished well.”
Max Player has been working at Santa Anita, most recently covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.40 on Oct. 24.
2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Profile: MAX PLAYER
Post position: 9
Jockey: Ricardo Santana, Jr.
Trainer: Steve Asmussen
Owners: George E. Hall, SportBLX Thoroughbreds Corp.
Career record: 11-4-1-2
Career earnings: $1,252,500
Top Equibase speed figure: 113
Pedigree: Honor Code-Fools In Love, by Not For Love
Running style: Stalker/Front-runner
Betting advice: Looks like Max would need a strong start to stay with Knicks Go and maybe Medina Spirit in what’s expected to be a fast pace. If positioned for a run at the lead into the stretch, Asmussen’s colt could pull off a surprise. Don’t count him out, and seriously consider him at good odds to hit the board.
Notes: Steve Asmussen recently became the winningest thoroughbred trainer in North America when he notched win No. 9,446 on Aug. 7 … Max Player is from the first crop of Honor Code, the 2015 Eclipse Award winner as older dirt male champion who ran third in the Classic that year … Asmussen has sent out 61 starters in the Breeders’ Cup with seven winners – two in the Classic (Curlin in 2007 and Gun Runner in 2017); Mitole (2019 Sprint); My Miss Aurelia (2011 Juvenile Fillies); Regally Ready (2011 Turf Sprint); Tapizar (2021 Dirt Mile); and Untapable (2014 Distaff) … Santana has ridden in 21 races at the Breeders’ Cup with two winners, Fire at Will (2020 Juvenile Turf) and Mitole (2019 Sprint).