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Breeders' Cup Classic Top Contenders 2021

Written by: Brian Zipse
Updated October 14, 2022
17 min read
Breeders Cup Classic Top Contenders

In the final round of the major preps for the $6 million, Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, speed was king. It was no surprise that the heavily favored Knicks Go went straight to the lead and dominated throughout in the Lukas Classic, but when Medina Spirit and Art Collector responded with similar types of performances in the Awesome Again and Woodward respectively on Saturday, it appears to have set up a very interesting early pace for the big one.

As we move closer to the crowning jewel of the World Championships, let’s take a look at the top contenders and their early odds for the race likely to decide 2021 Horse of the Year honors.

Take a look also at the Breeders’ Cup Distaff top contenders.

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1) Knicks Go 5/2

Last year’s impressive winner of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile has taken things up a notch in 2021. After keeping his winning streak going with a big win in January’s rich Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park, the Maryland-bred son of Paynter hit a bit of a speed bump, with consecutive losses in Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Cup and America’s Met Mile.

The losing streak was ended emphatically, though with an overpowering and confidence-building runaway in the Cornhusker (G3) at Prairie Meadows. Back free-wheeling it on the front, Knicks Go has looked like the best horse in America with big wins in the Whitney (G1) and Saturday’s Lukas Classic (G3).

The Breeders’ Cup Classic will present obstacles to the favorite, though, as there looks to be quality speed to challenge him early as he tries to go a distance (10 furlongs) in which he is still unproven.

2) Essential Quality 4/1

The gray son of Tapit remains the leader of the pack of a very solid group of 3-year-olds with consecutive victories in the Belmont Stakes (G1), Jim Dandy (G2), and Travers (G1).

The juvenile champion of 2020 has had to work for those victories, but he always seems to know how to get the job done down the stretch. Only a tough defeat in the Kentucky Derby stands in the way of a spotless career record.

A winner of five stakes races this season, he is close to clinching another Eclipse Award, but there is still work to be done.

Like Knicks Go, he is trained by Brad Cox, who has mapped out a demanding schedule for the champion, but one that has not yet tested older horses.

He is proven capable at the Classic distance, now he must prove he can beat the best of the older horses as well.

3) Hot Rod Charlie 8/1

After strong performances, but tough defeats in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, it looked like the son of Oxbow had finally broken through with his first Grade 1 win in the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park.

The celebration was short-lived, though, as the Stewards demoted him to last for interference in the stretch.

Displaying his consistency and forward progress, the Doug O’Neill-trainee finally secured that first Grade 1 victory in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx on September 25.

With his races well-spaced, and now looking better than ever, he looks like a legitimate threat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but the winner of the Louisiana Derby and Pennsylvania Derby must still get past his rival Essential Quality, as well as a solid cast of older horses.

4) Medina Spirit 8/1

Of the big three sophomores, this tenacious colt was the first to try older horses. He passed the test with flying colors as an impressive winner of Saturday’s Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

After going wire-to-wire in this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1), the son of Protonico lost some luster when he failed his post-race urine test.

While the courts are still deciding if we will be able to keep the trophy, he has continued on with three more starts.

In the Preakness (G1), he succumbed to the pressure and finished third, but has looked good in winning his two recent starts. In both the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar and the Awesome Again, he looked like a more mature colt able to dominate things on the lead.

That will get tested by the likes on Knicks Go, but he is clearly coming up to the race in great form.

5) Maxfield 10/1

Once considered a favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, this son of Street Sense has lost his last two and may show up at Del Mar as a bit of a forgotten horse. That could wind up being a big mistake.

A rallying winner of 7 of his 10 career starts, he was forced to chase first Knicks Go in the Whitney and then Art Collector in the Woodward.

With those two alone on the lead in each, the Brendan Walsh-trained runner never had a real opportunity to do his best late running.

Still good enough to finish second best in each, he should get a totally different pace scenario in the 1 1/4 mile Breeders’ Cup Classic.

As the fifth betting choice, or so, the impressive winner of the Stephen Foster (G2) and Alysheba (G2) earlier this year looks like a very intriguing option on November 6.



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6) Max Player 10/1

Last year, he was clearly a step behind the best 3-year-olds in the nation. The winner of the Withers (G3) ran in all three legs of the Triple Crown, finishing third, fifth and fifth respectively. This year, he may have turned the corner for top trainer Steve Asmussen. After two dull races in Saudi Arabia and Maryland to begin the season, the son of Honor Code has come to life in his last two.

In both the Suburban (G2) at Belmont and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Saratoga, he showed more tactical speed and a real appreciation for the 10-furlong distance.

He earned a career-best Beyer in his last and should like the likely solid pace in the Breeders’ Cup.

With good spacing between races, he should come to Del Mar ready to fire. Whether or not that will be good enough remains to be seen.

7) Art Collector 10/1

A winner of three straight since joining the Hall of Fame barn of Bill Mott, this son of Bernardini looks very much like the colt who was streaking towards last year’s Kentucky Derby. He never got the chance to run for the roses, but after an indifferent return to the races in June, he has again looked like a major player.

Three consecutive victories going 9 furlongs at three different tracks have showcased both his speed and his talent.

Things will get far tougher at Del Mar, though, in both competition and pace pressure. Still, Saturday’s win in the Woodward (G1) was his best performance to date against the best field he has faced.

His class will be tested, but he is clearly moving in the right direction at the right time.

8) Tripoli 20/1

The winner of the Grade 1 Pacific Classic in August, he struggled home to finish a disappointing fourth in the Awesome Again.

A similar performance in the Classic will leave him far behind many on this list, but there is reason to believe he can bounce back.

On Saturday, he was probably a little too close early as Medina Spirit controlled the front end. With more pace promised in the Breeders’ Cup, he should be able to sit back and make one run. The good news, as well, is that his best career race came two starts ago at the same trip and track that he will see on November 6.

From the same connections that won the Classic a few years ago with Accelerate, he should not be dismissed.

9) Dr. Post 20/1

A rallying third in each of his last two, this son of Quality Road still needs to prove he can win at the highest level.

Twice an impressive winner at the Grade 3 level this year, he has yet to get over the hump at the Grade 1 level, with his best performance to date coming as the runner-up in last year’s Belmont Stakes behind Tiz the Law.

In the Pacific Classic two starts back, he was way too far back early, and while he made up plenty of ground, it was only good enough for a non-threatening third.

In Saturday’s Woodward, he stayed in touch early as Art Collector coasted along on the lead. He made a wide move to threaten, but could not gain too much on the winner, and was actually outfinished by Maxfield.

Perhaps with that type of trip on a faster pace, he could make some noise in the Classic, but only with a career-best performance.

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10) Letruska 8/1

The dominant older female in the nation is far more likely to stick with her own sex for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, but just in case her connections decide to go after the bigger prize, she deserves a spot on this list.

A daughter of Super Saver, she has put together a pretty spectacular season in 2021. After beginning her career and dominating down in Mexico, she proved to be a classy mare, but not quite at the top of her division last year.

This year, she has only gotten better. After winning the Houston Ladies Classic (G3) and narrowly falling short behind Shedaresthedevil in the Azeri (G2), the Fausto Gutierrez-trained mare has rattled off impressive victories at four different tracks in the Apple Blossom (G1), Ogden Phipps (G1), Fleur de Lis (G2) and Personal Ensign (G1).

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Brian Zipse

287 Articles

Taken to the races at a very young age, Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Professionally, his work has been published on several leading industry sites. Brian served as the Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, where he still writes a regular column and hosts the popular weekly webcast HorseCenter.

Email: [email protected]

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