By Ed McNamara
Starting in 1984, the Breeders’ Cup has saved its best for last: 3-year-olds and older horses going 1 1/4 miles in the megabucks Classic, the season’s grand finale.
With the racing world watching, the Classic has created an endless highlight reel. Longshot Wild Again taking down Gate Dancer and Slew O’ Gold in the first one. Ferdinand nosing out Alysheba. Sunday Silence holding off archrival Easy Goer. Arcangues scoring at an insane 133-1. Cigar capping a perfect season. Tiznow taking back-to-back photo finishes over European superstars. Zenyatta beating the boys, then losing a heartbreaker to Blame the next year. American Pharoah galloping into history with an unprecedented Grand Slam.
The 38th Classic will be staged at Del Mar late in the afternoon of Nov. 6, the last day of Daylight Savings Time. It will already be dark in most of the country, a depressing reminder that winter is closing in. All the prep races are over, so it’s time to start sifting through the past performances of the contenders. Brad Cox trains early favorites Essential Quality and Knicks Go, and recently he spoke with Jennie Rees, a communications specialist for the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Talking Knicks Go, Essential Quality
Both superstars are gray, but besides Cox they have little in common. Essential Quality, last year’s 2-year-old champion, is 8-for-9 lifetime and a proven stayer, with wins in the 10-furlong Travers and the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. Knicks Go is a freakishly fast 5-year-old who likes to take the lead and improve his position. He’s dominated at 1 1/8 miles but never tried 1 1/4, and sometimes that extra furlong turns out to be a lot longer than 220 yards.
“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. Del Mar seems to have a little bit of a shorter stretch, and Knicks Go runs the turns well, so I’m very confident he can get a mile and a quarter at Del Mar.”
He might have problems if another need-to-lead standout pressures him. Like Knicks Go, Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit must be in front to excel, and if they duel, that could set it up for Essential Quality.
“The mile and a quarter isn’t going to be an issue for him at all,” Cox said. “He won the Belmont and then the Travers. From a soundness and physical standpoint, he’s as good as he can ever be.”
Does distance matter in the Classic?
Do you need a win at 1 1/4 miles to take the Classic? Not necessarily, but it helps. Of the past six Classic champions — Authentic, Vino Rosso, Accelerate, Gun Runner, Arrogate and American Pharoah — only Gun Runner hadn’t won at 10 furlongs. Yet from 2009-14, only Drosselmeyer had done that, although Bayern, Mucho Macho Man, Fort Larned, Blame and Zenyatta had won stakes at 1 1/8 miles. Only Bayern had poor form beyond that distance, finishing ninth in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness and 10th in the Travers. Of that 12-horse sample, only Zenyatta had never gone 1 1/4 miles, and she was a one-of-a-kind exception — a relentless Amazon queen, a Hall of Famer who retired 19-for-20.
Essential Quality has what it takes to win
So, unless you think Knicks Go can make an easy lead, back up the pace and sprint clear leaving the far turn, think twice about betting him. I cashed on five of the last 12 Classic winners, and I have my doubts about him. Besides Medina Spirit, there’s other high-class speed — Hot Rod Charlie, Art Collector — and Knicks Go won’t get a free ride. He’ll also be heavily bet. Never take a short price on a horse trying something for the first time, and you couldn’t find a harder place to learn a new trick than the Classic.
If forced to make a future bet, I’d be on Essential Quality, who’s never run a subpar race. He was fourth in the Derby, beaten by only a length, despite a rough start and a very wide trip all the way. Other than that, he’s perfect.
As Cox said, “He never really gets tired, and he keeps coming and coming.”
That’s the kind of horse you want in the Classic.