Revisiting the 1 ¼-Mile ‘Classic’ Distance Before the 2020 Breeders’ Cup

Authentic, left, winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and Tiz the Law, right, winning the Runhappy Travers Stakes both are proven at one and one-quarter miles. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, we took a look at the “classic” distance of 1 ¼ miles, the challenge it poses specifically to 3-year-olds, and why the ability to excel when stretching out to this distance often separates the great from the good.

While there are fewer races at this distance then there were five, 10, 20 years ago, the ability to beat the best of the best at 1 ¼ miles remains a true measuring stick for Thoroughbred racehorses in the United States, and there is no race that separates the pretenders from the contenders quite like the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Just since the start of the 21st Century, we’ve witnessed superstars such as Tiznow, Ghostzapper, Invasor, Curlin, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah cement their legacies in the Breeders’ Cup Classic while a host of others such as Blame, Arrogate, and Gun Runner confirmed they were indeed special racehorses in the signature race of the World Championships.

In quite a few instances, a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was the difference between a stellar career and a Hall of Fame career. The best 3-year-olds and older horses, females and males, face off at 1 ¼ miles to see which is best on a neutral site in a race that sometimes has the power to transform a champion into a legend.

This year’s $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic will be held Nov. 7 at Keeneland Race Course, and as there’s no clear standout – Daily Racing Form’s Brad Free has six horses between 3-1 and 8-1 odds – there is an opportunity for multiple candidates to significantly boost their credentials for Horse of the Year with a career-defining victory.

Should Kentucky Derby winner Authentic or Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and Runhappy Travers Stakes winner Tiz the Law prevail, either would almost certainly become the Horse of the Year and a Hall of Fame candidate.

Imagine if the connections of 3-year-old filly Swiss Skydiver target the Classic and she pairs her Preakness Stakes win with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Talk about a résumé?

And, of course, multiple older horses with strong but not remarkable credentials to date could etch their names in the history books with a Classic victory and perhaps take home Horse of the Year honors.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top 20 (by winning time) 1 ¼-mile dirt races in the U.S. to date in 2020, courtesy of Equibase:

From the chart, you can see that expected Breeders’ Cup Classic contenders Tacitus, Authentic, Tiz the Law, Maximum Security, Global Campaign, and Improbable as well as possible entrants Happy Saver and Swiss Skydiver already own a victory at 1 ¼ miles. From that group, all but Tacitus’s victory came in a Grade 1 race, although as we mentioned in August, Tacitus owns the fastest time at the distance in 2020.

Authentic, Tiz the Law, and Improbable all appear to have excelled in their 1 ¼-mile races. While Swiss Skydiver’s Alabama Stakes looks a bit slow on paper, she did come back to outfinish Authentic in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness, winning in 1:53.28 in the second fastest edition of the race in history, trailing only Secretariat’s 1:53 in 1973.

In my opinion, the table also shows how close this year’s probable cast appears to be on paper. While final times on different racetracks with unique weather conditions and pace scenarios at different times in the season do not make for a straightforward, accurate comparison – that’s why speed figures were created – there does not appear to be a significant gap between number two (Kentucky Derby) and number seven (Jockey Club Gold Cup) on this list.

Add in that I’m skeptical of Tacitus after he failed to win as the overwhelming favorite while facing short fields in both the Grade 1 Woodward Handicap and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, and you can see how one could view the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Classic as a wide-open race.

There are even multiple scenarios where a talented 3-year-old could elevate him or herself into the Horse of the Year debate with credentials that borderline on Hall of Fame worthy. Regardless, the Classic looks like an intriguing 1 ¼-mile test that will play a major role in the Horse of the Year Award and, perhaps, multiple division championships as well.

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