Analyzing the 2021 Breeders' Cup Classic pre-entries

October 28th, 2021

Pre-entries for the Nov. 5-6 Breeders’ Cup were announced Wednesday, and as usual, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) has attracted a potential field worthy of its $6 million purse.

Held over 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar, the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic has attracted 10 horses at the first stage of entry. Eight are Grade 1 winners, while the remaining two are stakes winners whe have placed at the Grade 1 level.

From top to bottom, the field is stacked with talent and speed.

The Classic is packed with pacesetters. First and foremost is reigning Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Knicks Go, who hasn’t been headed during the first three calls of eight U.S. starts under the care of trainer Brad Cox. Those eight starts have yielded seven gate-to-wire victories, including a dominant, 4 1/2-length score in the Whitney S. (G1) during the summer at Saratoga.

Normally, Knicks Go is able to outsprint his rivals for early supremacy and secure an unchallenged lead, but this strategy will be difficult to employ on the stretch out to 1 1/4 miles in the Classic. Knicks Go will have to carry his speed over an unfamiliar distance and face at least three or four serious pace rivals who will be reflected in their odds.

Chief among them is Medina Spirit, the first horse across the finish line in the 2021 Kentucky Derby (G1). Ten furlongs isn’t an issue for the son of Protonico, who enters fresh, off a five-length romp against older horses in the Awesome Again S. (G1) at Santa Anita. Medina Spirit isn’t as fast as Knicks Go on paper, but all his strongest efforts have come when he sets the pace. If he wants to vie for victory, he may have to challenge Knicks Go from the start, which sets the stage for a hot pace.

But wait, there’s more speed in the Classic field. The improving Art Collector has set or pressed the pace in his last three starts and most recently wired the 1 1/8-mile Woodward S. (G1) at Saratoga to earn a 110 Brisnet Speed rating. And the speedy sophomore Hot Rod Charlie matched that figure when he put up a gate-to-wire win in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) at Parx last month. Even Stilleto Boy has set the pace in four of his last seven starts, though his recent runner-up effort in the Awesome Again came with stalking tactics.

As a result of all this speed, the Classic may unfold in a manner favorable to closers proven over the Classic distance. Chief among them is Knicks Go’s stablemate, Essential Quality, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner and champion two-year-old male of 2020.

No horse has ever completed the Juvenile/Classic double, but Essential Quality appears to have a strong shot at this elusive feat. The Cox trainee enters the Classic off determined victories in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont S. (G1), 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy S. (G2), and 1 1/4-mile Travers S. (G1), with a variety of running styles.

Essential Quality’s Belmont victory was especially impressive, since the son of Tapit posted triple-digit Brisnet E1, E2, and Late Pace ratings on his way to a 111 Brisnet Speed rating, which is tied for the best figure in the Classic field. The Belmont unfolded at a rapid pace, so a similar setup in the Classic should position Essential Quality for a peak performance. The fact that he has shown the stamina to win over 1 1/2 miles bodes well for his ability to win a fast-paced, 1 1/4-mile heat.

Max Player, Tripoli, and Idol are other long-winded Grade 1 winners with the potential to capitalize on a quick tempo.

Max Player is undefeated in two starts at 1 1/4 miles this year. He employed tracking and pressing tactics to win the Suburban S. (G2) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), but he is also adaptable enough to rally from behind, as he did in a 2020 Withers S. (G3) victory.

Versatility is likewise a strong suit for Tripoli, who employed tracking tactics to win Del Mar’s 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic (G1), one start after he rallied to a runner-up effort in the 1 1/8-mile San Diego H. (G2). The John Sadler trainee failed to fire his best shot in the Awesome Again and finished a distant fourth, behind Medina Spirit, but Tripoli is eligible to rebound in his return to the site of his Pacific Classic triumph.

Idol similarly disappointed in the Awesome Again, with a sixth-place finish, but the stoutly bred son of Curlin was returning from a long layoff and previously produced a powerful stretch rally to win the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita H. (G1), over Awesome Again third-place finisher Express Train, who completes the list of Classic pre-entrants. If Idol improves in his second run back, he should find a pace scenario conducive to a competitive performance.

Will the amount of speed in the Classic lead to a pace meltdown? Or will one pace player outsprint the others and hold off the closers down the stretch? We’ll find out Nov. 6.