Sky Sports Racing’s Barry Faulkner casts his gaze on all nine contenders at Saturday night’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The 2020 renewal was won by Authentic and coach Bob Baffert has a live chance again this year with Medina Spirit.
Other notable contenders include Essential Quality, Knicks Go, and Tripoli – here’s Barry’s expert analysis of each runner.
1 – Tripoli (Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr; coach John Sadler)
He made an incredible effort to win the Pacific Classic, on this course and distance in August. He was not suited to the race run, which returned to nine stages, in Awesome Again last month, when he was fourth behind Medina Spirit, Stiletto Boy and Express Train.
He does well on the journey and seems confident that he has a strong pace to run, which would suit him perfectly. Sadler had success with Accelerate in 2018 for this guy’s owners and hired Irad Ortiz for the ride in this live long shot.
2 – Express train (V Espinoza; J Shirreffs)
Express Train has won a couple of races this year, with its San Pasqual win in Santa Anita in January, complemented by success in the San Diego Handicap in July.
In the wake of that success, he was named a favorite for the Pacific Classic but, having tightened early, was unable to get involved.
Running troubles hit him in Awesome Again last month, but it would still be a surprise to see him prevail for Zenyatta manager John Shireffs.
3 – Hot Rod Charlie (F Prat; D O’Neill)
After winning the Louisiana Derby in March, Hot Rod Charlie was sent as the third favorite for the Kentucky Derby G1, and that was his final position behind Medina Spirit but just short of Essential Quality.
Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie skipped Preakness but collided again, going a mile and a half, in the Belmont G1, where Essential Quality took the winner’s side, with Hot Rod Charlie behind second.
He then raced in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and, in a ding-dong battle, came home for a nose, from Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun.
But there was a sting in the tail. He was disqualified and ranked last after severely hampering Midnight Bourbon. He had to take his revenge on that rival and his first high-level success when he won the Pennsylvania Derby in late September.
4 – Essential quality (L Saez; B Cox)
Essential Quality’s only defeat in nine career games, last year’s youth category winner, was his fourth place finish, in a short final in the Kentucky Derby in May. the break, before being ridden in contention when the field hit the wire for the first time.
However, he was unable to contend with the speed control winner. He missed the Preakness but won the Triple Crown, beating and staying out, Hot Rod Charlie at Belmont in early June.
He was given a break, but returned in late July to win the Jim Dandy in Saratoga, as a 2-5 favorite. This is the traditional preparation for the Midsummer Derby at Spa, the Travers and in that race he came home for a hard-fought neck, from Midnight Bourbon.
It’s a grinder that likes a battle and Saturday should be ideal.
5 – Knicks Go (J Rosario; B Cox)
Knicks Go has had a career of two halves. He started with manager Ben Colebrook and had a good juvenile year in 2018, winning Stanford in Saratoga, Breeders’ Futurity in Keeneland – at 70-1 and finishing second in Juvenile, tied for Favorite Game Winner, when a 40-1 shot.
Unfortunately, the wheels didn’t turn as impressively in its three-year season, with just two second places out of eight starts. Moving to Brad Cox’s stable for 2020, he won a couple of widely spaced Allowances, one in February, the other in October.
He gained an eye-catching speed figure for the second of them and lined up as a local 9-5 favorite for the Dirt Mile, despite arriving after just one run of preparation. In the race, he did not give his supporters a moment of doubt, returning home after placing some sparkling sectionals.
It was a similar story to the Pegasus World Cup, which ran nine stadiums in January of this year. There was a hitch on the road when he managed to finish fourth behind Mishriff in the Saudi Cup in February, followed by a disappointing fourth at the Met Mile in June.
6 – Art collector (M Smith; W Mott)
Since moving to Coach Bill Mott’s stable in the middle of this year, he’s become a pretty useful racehorse.
His three runs entrusted to the man who won the Classic in 1995 with the great Cigar saw him win a Listed competition in Saratoga, the Charles Town Classic and Woodward in Belmont earlier last month.
They were all nine stages and he is another one who is an unknown in this journey. His speed figure from that last run, when he beat a useful guy at Maxfield, was pretty strong and his late pace “number” provides a lot of encouragement.
7 – Spiked boy (K Desormeaux Jr; E Moger)
Let’s hope the Mogers have an enjoyable day in Del Mar, because their rep, Still to Boy, will have to show something that was hidden to take this. He’s 66-1 with the bookmakers here for a reason.
8 – Spirit of Medina (J Velazquez; B Baffert)
Medina Spirit entered the Kentucky Derby after a couple of second places in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby.
In the race itself, he quickly established himself in a comfortable pace like speed control and lasted to win by ½ length from Mandaloun, absent here, with Hot Rod Charlie at the same distance in third, a head ahead of Essential Quality in the fourth.
He emerged with the blanket of roses but, later, a less welcome drug test. The matter is still going through the legal process, but he was unable to follow the Preakness, finishing third, and was therefore prevented from racing in the Belmont.
After that, he was given some free time before returning to a particularly strong listed competition in August, where he won, despite not looking back at his best.
Then, early last month, he hired his elders for the first time at Awesome Again in Santa Anita, running through nine stages.
He put on a visually impressive performance that day by winning by five lengths and beyond, from Stiletto Boy, Express Train and Tripoli, when he set his comfortable laps again. He is unlikely to have the luxury of speed control here and that could jeopardize his chances.
9 – Maximum player (R Santana; S Asmussen)
Coach Steve Asmussen, who trained the winner of this event with Gun Runner the last time it was held here, brings Max Player to the party in 2021.
The colt started 2021 with a trip to the Arabia Cup, where he was never a factor behind Mishriff. He then disappointed in May’s Pimlico Special, but has since won twice.
He returned home for a neck in the Suburban in Belmont in July and improved the situation by winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in Saratoga in early September.
Both wins came on this journey but while ten stadiums may not be a problem for him, some of his rivals may be.
Barry Faulkner’s verdict
Although the younger generation may present a strong challenge, KNICKS GO he became a very fast and classy runner.
His sections in last year’s Dirt Mile were inconceivably fast and in 2021 he seemed comfortable stretching to nine stages.
I think he will get this journey and can set the kind of pace that all his rivals will find strenuous on the road to victory. TRIPOLI he’s the type to pick up the pieces in the final stages.