The 2021 Breeders’ Cup organizers are doing their darn best, in the form of the stellar weekend’s $31 million in purses, to bring both this series and the sport at large back to the fore, despite the rough-and-tumble of the second year of the pandemic. The Classic brings us quite the bright nosegay of favorites in Medina Spirit, whose hardy Derby win and subsequent drug tribulations literally rocked the sport back on its heels this summer, and his rival Essential Quality. Essential Quality’s heavy favorite status in the Class of 2021 was usurped by none other than Medina Spirit in the Derby before Essential Quality regained his footing to take the Belmont.
Those two favorites have some Triple Crown priors, is the point, and that means all of racing is hoping to see those priors worked out this afternoon at Del Mar. That, in addition to the $6 million purse for the Classic, is what is at stake for the top two favorites. All Breeders’ Cup Classics are by definition big. This one is big-big.
Perhaps it’s the size of the purses combined with that extra energy that the industry, the breeders themselves, bring to the day, but any Breeders’ Cup race day has a famous way of making all the sharp questions about every athlete in every race even sharper. But before we call in our resident Kentucky horseman, the Bluegrass Wise Man ™, who is trackside at Del Mar this year, to delve into the filigree of just how Hot Rod Charlie could wreck Medina Spirit’s plans for Essential Quality — or EQ’s plans for Medina Spirit — here for reference are the post positions and the morning line, which we’ll update in this space with live odds as the Del Mar opens and the money starts to talk.
Nota bene: Post time at Del Mar is at 8:40 p.m. EDT and will be carried on NBC.
(Post Position, Horse, Trainer, Jockey, Morning Line)
1. Tripoli, John Sadler, Irad Ortiz Jr., 15-1
2. Express Train, John Shirreffs, Victor Espinoza, 20-1
3. Hot Rod Charlie, Doug O’Neill, Flavien Prat, 4-1
4. Essential Quality, Brad Cox, Luis Saez, 3-1
5. Knicks Go, Brad Cox, Joel Rosario, 5-2
6. Art Collector, Bill Mott, Mike Smith, 8-1
7. Stilleto Boy, Ed Moger Jr., Kent Desormeaux, 30-1
8. Medina Spirit, Bob Baffert, John Velazquez, 4-1
9. Max Player, Steve Asmussen, Ricardo Santana Jr., 8-1
(Source: Del Mar, 11/6/2021)
The Bluegrass Wise Man ™ is a trusted Kentucky horseman and owner who has been deeply generous to us with his horse sense and his long experience in handicapping Triple Crown seasons past. Though an owner, he has no horses running in this year’s Classic, but he will definitely be betting the race.
So, the match-race-within-the-race. Assuming it happens, tell us what you see at stake for Medina Spirit.
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: A lot. In several ways. First, let’s remember that this huge cloud of suspicion that hangs over Bob (Baffert) is not Medina Spirit’s fault. Medina Spirit is the athlete, right? He’s just in his stall eating out of his bucket and out on the track breezing. And he ran a surprisingly good Derby, muscling on out past Essential Quality, who for several good reasons didn’t get a very good trip. So, despite that, and despite his subsequent wins, Medina Spirit still has to show us that he can get up and out and past Essential Quality, basically. Medina Spirit has got to answer the question about the Derby, never mind that it’s technically not a win for him any longer. Medina Spirit’s got to say to us that his Derby run wasn’t a fluke. I mean, he went off at 12-1 in the Derby and took it. It’s time for him to show us that sort of grit again, please.
And, for Essential Quality?
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Maybe even more. They’re not re-running the Derby today, but what happened in the Derby matters. Essential Quality didn’t have his mind right in that race, and as Brad (Cox, EQ’s trainer) has said, he didn’t like breaking from way outside in the 14 hole. Essential Quality has a more classically groomed pedigree than Medina Spirit ever thought about, that’s well known. So, he’s been running well, and winning, and of course he showed us a lot in the Belmont. Today’s the time for him to live up to all of that and take it with some power. What his connections are looking for is a race to seal the deal, or at least to improve it. And let us not forget the Breeders’ as a kind of fork in the road in racing careers. A win can put the decision of heading on out into the stud barn right to the fore. So, for its part, Godolphin has quite a lot riding along with Louis Saez in the irons on Essential Quality this afternoon.
We love wrecking potential in every race, so tell us who’s the absolute nightmare for the top two favorites here. Hot Rod Charlie, or Knicks Go?
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Both horses, but in very different ways, and that’s gonna be the fun today. What I mean is, as nightmares go for favorites, having Hot Rod Charlie and Knicks Go in there kind of brackets the favorites and improves the race by a long way. Because: Knicks Go must, absolutely must, be up front. I don’t happen to like that style of running, but he sure as hell does. So, he’s out there in front of ‘em all. Okay, Hot Rod Charlie is a bit of a stalker. He can lay back and bring it. How much he can bring to, say, Essential Quality in a stretch duel, is his question. He looked pretty handy in the the Derby stretch, edging out Essential Quality and what not, but he needs to step it up today if he wants to take it at the wire. Knicks Go’s question is, hard as it may be to believe, right there in black and white. He’s never run a mile-and-a-quarter. Period.
Give us a bit of a picture of how you see that playing out.
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: I could see Knicks Go burning up all the gas in the tank by the top of the stretch. But before that, in the first turn and up the backstretch, he could lead them a chase, meaning, be the speed. Just not sure he has the sense, or can be held back, from doing that in what’s going to be for him a very, very long mile-and-a-quarter. Hot Rod Charlie I could see in there duking it out with the big boys.
Of the two top favorites, whom do you favor? Or, do you favor either at all?
Bluegrass Wise Man ™: Whew, they’re close. I don’t know how, exactly, he transmits this, but Essential Quality feels a little steadier, maybe a bit more robust, than Medina Spirit right now. Medina Spirit is a scrapper, he’s a fighter and I like that a lot. But I think for the presence of mind — for that ability to assess a situation, stay cool, and to be able to assemble a great run in the middle of a race — for that I’m going to go with Essential Quality. It can, also, not work for him today, and given his disappointing Derby, that’s in fact one of his questions. Can he bring that again. But in terms of what you look for in a Thoroughbred race horse, Essential Quality has it.