A loaded field with impressive resumes. And the Kentucky Derby winner won’t even be the favorite. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is a fitting finale to the world championships, with the heavyweights battling for Horse of the Year honors.
At 5-2, Knicks Go is the early favorite for Saturday's $6 million Classic at Del Mar. He's one of two entries from trainer Brad Cox, who also saddles Belmont Stakes winner and 3-1 second choice Essential Quality. Both could clinch divisional honors with a victory or solid showing.
“Both horses have had great years and hopefully we can add to their resume,” said Cox, who has seven Cup wins in his career.
Knicks Go is likely to bolt out of the starting gate and set the early pace.
“We're probably getting a pace similar or maybe even hotter than it was in the Kentucky Derby,” Cox said. "It's very rare for a horse to do what Knicks Go can do. You don't always see horses that are capable of running as quick as he can and clearing. He really accelerates in the turns.”
Trained by Bob Baffert, Medina Spirit, who won the Kentucky Derby and then failed a post-race drug test, is the co-third choice at 4-1, along with Belmont Stakes runner-up Hot Rod Charlie.
At last year's Breeders' Cup, Hot Rod Charlie was a 94-1 shot who finished second to Essential Quality in the Juvenile. He was third in the Kentucky Derby and lost again to Essential Quality in the Belmont.
“We know he's going to run a big race, he always does,” said Bill Strauss, co-owner of Hot Rod Charlie. “Is he good enough and does he get the trip? That's really what it all comes down to.”
The 14-race, season-ending championships began with five races Friday. Nine more will be run on Day 2 at the seaside track north of San Diego.
The event culminates with the 1¼-mile Classic shown live in prime time on NBC.
Medina Spirit finished third in the Preakness, and then won his next two starts, including one at Del Mar.
“He likes this track and is training really well,” said Baffert, a four-time Classic winner, including last year with Authentic.
The $4 million Turf had its field reduced to 12 with 4-1 shot Domestic Spending and 20-1 shot United dropping out. Ireland-bred Tarnawa is the 9-5 favorite for trainer Dermot Weld.
Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien takes aim with a pair of 20-1 shots: Japan and Broome.
Letruska is the 8-5 favorite in the $2 million Distaff. She’s the first Breeders’ Cup entry for trainer Fausto Gutierrez. The 5-year-old mare has won five straight stakes races.
She’ll be challenged by co-second choices Shedaresthedevil and Malathaat, a 3-year-old filly taking on older horses for the first time.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Malathaat has won six of seven starts, including the Kentucky Oaks.
“You've got some speed in there. You've got some closers,” Pletcher said. “You've got some 3-year-old fillies, the best older mares. Hopefully there is a good, honest pace to run at.”
Shedaresthedevil is scheduled to be sold next week. She’s trained by Cox, who gave her an extended break after a third-place finish in the Spinster Stakes last October.
“So far, that plan is working,” Cox said. “We’ve been waiting for this.”
In other races Saturday:
—Gamine is the 3-5 favorite for the $1 million Filly & Mare Sprint. She's trained by Baffert, who agreed to pay for tightened security and oversight of his horses at the Cup as the result of five medication positives in the last year.
—Golden Pal is the 7-2 favorite in the $1 million Turf Sprint, one of three entries for trainer Wesley Ward.
—Life Is Good is the 4-5 choice in the $1 million Dirt Mile. Only Gamine in the Filly & Mare Sprint has lower odds. The colt has four wins and a second in five career starts.
—War Like Goddess is the 7-2 choice in the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf against an international field.
—Jackie's Warrior is the 6-5 favorite in the $2 million Sprint.
—Ireland-bred Space Blues is the 3-1 favorite in the $2 million Mile on turf, one of trainer Charlie Appleby's two runners.