by Jon White
October 27, 2021
Pre-entries for all 14 of this year’s Breeders’ Cup races at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6 have been announced.
This will be the 38th Breeders’ Cup, which was launched at Hollywood Park in 1984. Del Mar, known as the track “where the turf meets the surf,” is playing host to the equine extravaganza for the second time, having previously done so in 2017.
A total of 196 individual horses have been pre-entered, with 16 cross-entered in two races, bringing the total number of pre-entries to 212. They will be doing battle for a total of $31 million in Breeders’ Cup purses.
The richest Breeders’ Cup event is the $6 million Classic on Nov. 6, which has attracted 10 pre-entries. It will be carded as the last of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races to be decided.
Heading the BC Classic are Knicks Go and Essential Quality, a pair of equine stars conditioned by Brad Cox, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer of 2020. Knicks Go won the 2020 BC Dirt Mile. Essential Quality captured the 2020 BC Juvenile.
Knicks Go and Essential Quality are two of eight 2020 Breeders’ Cup winners pre-entered this year. However, trainer Adian O’Brien said that even though 2020 BC Mile winner Order of Australia had been pre-entered, the 4-year-old colt will not be going to Del Mar for this year’s BC Mile because his racing career has come to an end due to an injury.
Golden Pal won the 2020 BC Juvenile Turf Sprint. He is pre-entered in this year’s BC Turf Sprint.
The four 2020 Breeders’ Cup winners returning to defend their title in the same race are Gamine (Filly & Mare Sprint), Glass Slippers (Turf Sprint), Audarya (Filly & Mare Turf) and Tarnawa (Turf).
IS 1 1/4 MILES TOO FAR FOR KNICKS GO?
Pace makes the race, as the adage goes. Well, get ready to hear a lot of talk regarding pace when it comes to this year’s BC Classic.
Knicks Go is expected to be the favorite in the BC Classic, which will be contested at 1 1/4 miles and around two turns on the dirt. This will be the farthest that he has ever raced. He’s taking a three-race winning streak into the BC Classic. Those three victories all came in 1 1/8-mile races.
Back on July 2, Knicks Go registered a scintillating 10 1/2-length triumph as the 3-5 favorite in Prairie Meadows’ Grade III Cornhusker Handicap. The 5-year-old Maryland-bred Paynter colt then won Saratoga’s Grade I Whitney Stakes by 4 1/2 lengths when favored at slightly more than even money on Aug. 7. That was followed by a ridiculously easy four-length win in Churchill Downs’ Grade III Lukas Classic as a 1-10 favorite on Oct. 2.
In terms of Beyer Speed Figures, Knicks Go recorded a 113 in the Cornhusker, 111 in the Whitney, then a 104 in the Lukas Classic. The 113 is the highest Beyer recorded this year on dirt or turf in a race at longer than one mile.
Has there ever been a BC Classic winner who had not previously raced 1 1/4 miles? Yes, there have been three, as noted by Carolyn Greer of horseracingnation.com. The three are Ghostzapper, Raven’s Pass and Zenyatta.
Ghostzapper, trained by Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, went into the 2004 BC Classic off back-to-back victories at 1 1/8 miles in the Grade III Iselin Handicap on a sloppy track at Monmouth Park and Grade I Woodward Stakes on dry land at Belmont Park. He won the Iselin by 10 3/4 lengths, the Woodward by a neck.
Despite the 2004 BC Classic being the farthest that Ghostzapper had raced, he won by an emphatic three lengths as a 5-2 favorite at Lone Star Park.
Ghostzapper retired with nine wins from 11 career starts after winning the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont in 2005 in his final race. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, he ranks No. 12 on my list of the Top 25 Racehorses of the 21st Century so far to have raced in North America.
Raven’s Pass in 2008 and Zenyatta in 2009 both won their BC Classic on synthetic footing at Santa Anita.
The highly respected John Gosden trained Raven’s Pass, who was sent away at 13-1 in the 2008 BC Classic. Prior to that race, Raven’s Pass had raced exclusively on turf and never farther than one mile.
The great Zenyatta was 13 for 13 going into the 2009 BC Classic, which was her first attempt to go farther than 1 1/8 miles. Zenyatta was last early in the field of 12. When she was ninth at the quarter pole, it appeared she was about to lose for the first time, as articulated by Trevor Denman during his call of the race.
“And let’s see, Zenyatta has a lot -- a LOT -- of ground to make up,” said Denman as the field turned for home. “If she wins this, she’ll be a super horse.”
In a rally for the ages, Zenyatta electrified the 58,845 people in attendance and thousands more watching on television. She won by one length as the 5-2 favorite in what Denman so beautifully characterized as an “un…be…lieve…able” performance.
Zenyatta became the first and so far only female to win the BC Classic. She also became the first horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races. Zenyatta won the 2008 BC Distaff when it was called the Ladies’ Classic.
How strong was the 2009 BC Classic? Zenyatta defeated eight Grade I winners that day.
Zenyatta returned to the races in 2010. She ran her undefeated winning streak to 19 before finishing second in the 2010 BC Classic, which she lost by a head as the even-money favorite to Blame.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, Zenyatta ranks No. 2, behind only Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, on my list of the Top 25 Racehorses of the 21st Century so far to have raced in North America.
Interestingly, Greer listed 13 BC winners who had raced 1 1/4 miles prior to the BC Classic without having previously been victorious at this distance: Proud Truth (1985), Skywalker (1986), Concern (1994), Alphabet Soup (1996), Cat Thief (1999), Volponi (2002), Pleasantly Perfect (2003), Saint Liam (2005), Blame (2010), Fort Larned (2012), Mucho Macho Man (2013), Bayern (2014) and Gun Runner (2017).
A.P. Indy, Greer added, “had not won at 1 1/4 miles prior to his 1992 Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, but he did win the Belmont Stakes that year at 1 1/2 miles.”
While Knicks Go has not yet raced farther than 1 1/4 miles, several of his BC Classic opponents already have won at this distance.
Below, in alphabetical order, is the record in 1 1/4-mile races for the horses pre-entered in the BC Classic:
0-0-0-0 Art Collector
2-1-0-0 Essential Quality
3-0-1-1 Express Train
1-0-0-1 Hot Rod Charlie
0-0-0-0 Knicks Go
4-2-0-0 Max Player
1-1-0-0 Medina Spirit
0-0-0-0 Stilleto Boy
Essential Quality, also trained by Cox, is coming off a win in Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes as a 2-5 favorite at 1 1/4 miles on Aug. 28. The Kentucky-bred Tapit colt also succeeded in a race longer than 1 1/4 miles when victorious as the 13-10 favorite in the Grade I Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles on June 7.
The only time Essential Quality has lost in nine career starts came in Churchill Downs’ Grade I Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles on May 1. Sent away as the 5-2 favorite in the 19-horse Run for the Roses, he finished fourth. Essential Quality lost by one length, which actually was quite respectable considering the wide trip he experienced.
Medina Spirit, Tripoli and Idol are each one for one when racing 1 1/4 miles. Medina Spirit finished first in the Kentucky Derby. Tripoli won this year’s Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Idol won this year’s Grade I Santa Anita Handicap.
Max Player has the distinction of being the only horse pre-entered in the BC Classic to have won more than once at 1 1/4 miles. He’s a two-time winner at this distance. Max Player took Belmont’s Grade II Suburban by a neck on a sloppy track July 3. He then won Saratoga’s Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup by four lengths on dry land Sept. 4. Max Player will try to make it three straight victories at 1 1/4 miles in the BC Classic.
Hot Rod Charlie lost his only start so far at 1 1/4 miles, but he finished a commendable third (behind Medina Spirit and in front of Essential Quality) in the Kentucky Derby.
Art Collector and Stilleto Boy, like Knicks Go, will be racing 1 1/4 miles for the first time in the BC Classic.
WINNING STREAK AROUND TWO TURNS
Cox took over as Knicks Go’s trainer prior to the horse’s 2020 campaign. For Cox, Knicks Go is seven for seven when racing around two turns.
I believe what makes Knicks Go such a tough dude to beat in two-turn races is his ability to exhibit both early and late speed in a race. That produces a lethal one-two punch to his foes.
Knicks Go has been quick enough to get the early lead in all seven of his two-turn races last year and this year. Despite running so fast early, he’s managed to come home strongly enough to win all seven of those races by margins of 7 1/2, 10 1/4, 3 1/2, 2 3/4, 10 1/4, 4 1/2 and 4 lengths.
Consider what happened in last year’s Grade I BC Dirt Mile at Keeneland. It was Knicks Go’s third start for Cox. It also was Knicks Go’s first start in a stakes race for Cox.
Even though Knicks Go zipped the opening quarter-mile in :21.98, he came home strongly enough to win the BC Dirt Mile by three lengths. He wasn’t finishing on fumes, either. Knicks Go’s final time was an excellent 1:33.85, which broke Keeneland’s track record of 1:34.54 established by Liam’s Map when he won the 2015 BC Dirt Mile.
I think another reason for Knicks Go’s perfect record in all of his two-turn races in 2020 and so far in 2021 is his prowess when running on a turn. Knicks Go is able to negotiate the clubhouse turn so rapidly, yet so effortlessly, that he seizes control of the pace and, by extension the race, before reaching the backstretch.
There also is the dilemma that Knicks Go’s running style poses to his opponents. If no one is aggressive and tries to go with him early, it risks handing the race to him on a silver platter. But if someone is bold enough to take it to Knicks Go early, they just might be committing suicide.
The way I see it, the one horse who might try to take it to Knicks Go early in the BC Classic is probably Medina Spirit. That’s because all four of Medina Spirit’s victories around two turns have come when he took the early lead. Also, Medina Spirit is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who has won so many important races through the years by having a horse show early speed, such as Authentic in the 2020 BC Classic.
Could an early tussle between Knicks Go and Medina Spirit prove costly to them both? It does seem a possibility. I think it pretty much hinges on how hard Medina Spirit is ridden early.
I also can envision a scenario in which Knicks Go and Medina Spirit do vie for the lead to the first turn, but then Knicks Go “does his turn thing” and takes control of the pace before reaching the backstretch.
Through the many years I’ve been analyzing races I have learned that it can be tricky to try and forecast pace. That’s because the pace situation can change considerably if an early speed horse does not have a good start. For example, if Medina Spirit does not have an alert beginning in the BC Classic, it would help Knicks Go. And the same goes for Medina Spirit if Knicks Go happens to have a tardy start.
For anyone trying to beat Knicks Go on Nov. 6, you can bet that it would not break their heart if he just so happened to not break alertly.
GREATEST BC TRAINING FEATS
Joe Nevills of the Paulick Report contacted four current or former trainers to get their choice for the most impressive training feat in the history of the Breeders’ Cup.
Three opted for what a trainer did vis-a-vis an individual horse’s performance, while the other choice was a trainer’s dominance on a single Breeders’ Cup card.
Elliott Walden and Chad Summers both selected the job trainer Michael Dickinson did to win the 1998 BC Mile with Da Hoss.
“After winning the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Woodbine, Da Hoss didn’t race for 715 days, hampered by recurring injures that kept halting his progress on the comeback trail,” Nevills wrote. “Dickinson finally got the horse right for a return start in a Colonial Downs allowance less than a month before the 1998 Mile at Churchill Downs. [Da Hoss] won the race at Colonial Downs, then won by a head in the Breeders’ Cup; an effort billed by announcer Tom Durkin ‘the greatest comeback since Lazarus.’ ”
Steve Asmussen’s choice was what trainer Vincent Timphony did with Wild Again to win the inaugural 1984 BC Classic at Hollywood Park. Wild Again was allowed to run in that $3 million race only because a steep supplemental fee of $360,000 was paid to make him eligible. Ridden by Pat Day, Wild Again was victorious by a head in a 31-1 upset and earned $1,350,000.
Day once told me that his win in the first BC Classic was extremely important as far as his career was concerned.
“It put me on the map nationally,” Day said.
Kenny McPeek’s choice as the greatest Breeders’ Cup training feat was Richard Mandella’s four Breeders’ Cup victories in one day at Santa Anita in 2003. Mandella’s four winners on that occasion were Halfbridled in the Juvenile Fillies, Action This Day in the Juvenile, Johar (who dead-heated with High Chaparral) in the Turf and Pleasantly Perfect in the Classic.
“I was there that day and I think even Dick was in shock,” McPeek said to Nevills.
A great Breeders’ Cup training feat not mentioned was the tremendous job Ross Fenstermaker did to win the 1985 Sprint with Precisionist at Aqueduct on Nov. 2. Precisionist had not raced since June 23. Despite the layoff, Precisionist was credited with a 125 Beyer Speed Figure. It’s the highest Beyer in the history of the Breeders’ Cup.
Below are all of the Beyer Speed Figures of 120 or higher by a Breeders’ Cup winner from 1984 through 2020:
Beyer Winner (BC Race, Track)
125 Precisionist (1985 Sprint at Aqueduct)
124 Sunday Silence (1989 Classic at Gulfstream Park)
124 Artax (1999 Sprint at Gulfstream Park)
124 Ghostzapper (2004 Classic at Lone Star Park)
122 Alysheba (1988 Classic at Churchill Downs)
121 Very Subtle* (1987 Sprint at Hollywood Park)
120 Princess Rooney* (1984 Distaff at Hollywood Park)
120 Proud Truth (1985 Classic at Aqueduct)
120 Black Tie Affair (1991 Classic at Churchill Downs)
120 Skip Away (1997 Classic at Hollywood Park)
120 Cajun Beat (2003 Sprint at Santa Anita Park)
120 American Pharoah (2015 Classic at Keeneland)
120 Arrogate (2017 Classic at Santa Anita)
BC SELECTIONS NEXT WEEK
My selections and “nice price dangers” for all 14 Breeders’ Cup races will be posted on the Xpressbet website next week.
As usual, I also will be disclosing my choice as the “most probable winner” at this year’s Breeders’ Cup. My most probable Breeders’ Cup winner has won in 13 of the 17 last years.
Many understandably would have expected me to choose the undefeated Jackie’s Warrior in the Juvenile as the most probable winner at last year’s Breeders’ Cup. However, in addition to my decision to not make Jackie’s Warrior my most probable Breeders’ Cup winner, I didn’t even pick him to win his race.
Essential Quality was my top pick in the Juvenile. He got the job done at just under 2-1. Jackie’s Warrior finished third as the 9-10 favorite.
My most probable winner at the 2020 Breeders’ Cup was Golden Pal, who won the Juvenile Turf Sprint by three-quarters of a length as the 4-5 favorite.
Below is a list of my most probable Breeders’ Cup winner for each year going back to 2004:
2020 Golden Pal in the Juvenile Turf Sprint (won)
2019 Midnight Bisou (finished second)
2018 Newspaperofrecord in the Juvenile Fillies Turf (won)
2017 Bolt d’Oro in the Juvenile (finished third)
2016 Dortmund in the Dirt Mile (finished fourth)
2015 Songbird in the Juvenile Fillies (won)
2014 Goldencents in the Dirt Mile (won)
2013 Wise Dan in the Mile (won)
2012 Groupie Doll in the Filly & Mare Sprint (won)
2011 Goldikova in the Mile (won)
2010 Goldikova in the Mile (won)
2009 Zenyatta in the Classic (won)
2008 Zenyatta in the Ladies’ Classic (won)
2007 Midnight Lute in the Sprint (won)
2006 Ouija Board in the Filly & Mare Turf (won)
2005 Ouija Board in the Filly & Mare Turf (finished second)
2004 Ouija Board in the Filly & Mare Turf (won)
RACING MOURNS DEATHS OF NEUMEIER & SPEAR
Last Saturday certainly was a sad day in Thoroughbred racing when two media giants, Bob Neumeier and Sam Spear, passed away.
Known as “Neumy,” Neumeier was a longtime TV sports anchor and co-host of a radio sports talk show on Boston stations. He also became the play-by-play announcer for the Hartford Whalers and then the Boston Bruins.
Neumeier did an outstanding job during his many years as an expert handicapper and reporter for ESPN and NBC. He was a member of the broadcast team for such big events as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup. Along with his horse racing role for NBC, he worked on the network’s Olympics broadcasts.
I crossed paths with Neumeier a few times through the years. Chatting with him, even if just briefly, was always a pleasure. His love of horse racing was unmistakable.
Just this past April 19, I received an email from Neumeier.
“I was reading your column on Derby strikes,” Neumy wrote. “I am a sponge for any data, analysis, concepts, et al. Thus I find your Derby ‘strike’ stuff most interesting.”
I came up with the Derby Strikes System (DSS) years ago to try and determine a horse’s chances to win the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May from both tactical and historical perspectives. The DSS consists of eight categories. When a horse does not qualify in one of the categories, the horse gets a strike.
When the race was switched from May 2 to Sept. 5 in 2020 due to the pandemic, it rendered the DSS unworkable. That’s because a number of the categories in the DSS are associated with the Kentucky Derby being run in May. The DSS returned this year when the Kentucky Derby again was run on the first Saturday in May.
The vast majority (81%) of the Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or one strike going back to 1973 and excluding the Kentucky Derby of 2020 when the race was run in September.
The DSS can’t go any further back than 1973 because a number of the system’s categories are linked to graded races. Races in the U.S. were first graded in 1973.
Going back to 1973 and again excluding 2020 when the race was run in September, 39 out of the 48 Kentucky Derby winners had zero strikes or one strike prior to this year’s Run for the Roses, while seven had two strikes and only one (Mine That Bird) had more than two strikes.
Medina Spirit finished first in this year’s Kentucky Derby. He had zero strikes. If Medina Spirit is ever disqualified as a result of testing positive for the banned therapeutic medication betamethasone, Mandaloun then would be declared the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Mandaloun had one strike.
In Neumy’s email to me prior to this year’s Kentucky Derby, he passed along an interesting observation regarding my Derby Strikes System.
“Since I am a numbers freak with a bent toward curiosity, I noticed that going back to 1990, a Kentucky Derby runner with ZERO strikes has won 60% of the time,” Neumeier wrote. “I find this stat somewhat amazing, especially given the complete unpredictability of this sport, especially concerning this race.”
As noted by the Paulick Report, Neumeier “had two publicized health setbacks, the first coming in 2009 when he was taken to a Louisville hospital after collapsing at Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week. Five years later, he suffered a stroke just days before the 2014 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. He recovered from both incidents, most notably coming back from the stroke to win an NTRA-sponsored media handicapping tournament held in conjuction with the National Horseplayers Championship in 2015. Neumeier was back on the air for the 2015 Triple Crown.” American Pharoah in 2015 became the first horse to sweep the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
Neumeier had been in hospice care the last two months, according to the Boston Globe’s obituary. NBC Sports reported that Neumeier passed away peacefully last Saturday at home with his wife, Michele Ucci, by his side. He was 70.
Sam Spear died last Saturday from complications of sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease, according to multiple media reports. He was 72.
Spear was the longtime director of media relations at Golden Gate Fields and the now-defunct Bay Meadows. His influence in the San Francisco Bay Area as a horse racing publicist was gigantic. Spear produced and was the host of a television racing replay show for 39 years. He also was the host of the weekly radio program “At the Races with Sam Spear” for many years until health issues forced him to step away not too long ago. Yet another of his many roles was to interview winning connections after a stakes race for the track’s television simulcast broadcast.
I was a guest a number of times on Spear’s radio program. I also enjoyed talking with him at Golden Gate when I worked as a steward for the California Horse Racing Board in 2017 and 2018.
How about this? Guess who I saw when I was at the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin in 2006? Yep, none other than Sam Spear was there
Spear was a close friend of legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio. Spear often drove DiMaggio to Golden Gate or Bay Meadows.
“The Golden Gate Fields racing community will never forget Sam Spear and the countless contributions he made to Northern California horse racing and the community at large,” said a statement issued by the track.
The National Turf Writers and Broadcasters’ Mr. Fitz Award honors someone for “typifying the spirit of racing.” Neither Neumeier nor Spear ever received this award. As someone who knew both gentlemen, I think it’s fair to say nobody ever typified the spirit of racing any more than Bob Neumeier and Sam Spear.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
There are no newcomers in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll this week from last week. Knicks Go is No. 1 for the 12th consecutive week.
This week’s Top 10 is listed below:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 339 Knicks Go (23)
2. 313 Letruska (6)
3. 299 Essential Quality (7)
4. 163 Hot Rod Charlie
5. 159 Jackie’s Warrior
6. 130 Gamine
7. 122 Medina Spirit
8. 92 Art Collector
9. 83 Max Player
10. 70 Domestic Spending