Tips, Trends, and Historical Tidbits for Picking a Breeders’ Cup Classic Winner

Bayern (right) defeated Toast of New York by a nose to win the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic is the marquee race for the upcoming World Championships Nov. 5-6 at Del Mar. Since its inception in 1984, the 1 ¼-mile race has ascended to one of the most important races on the global racing calendar.

Horse racing superstars such as Ferdinand, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Unbridled, A.P. Indy, Cigar, Skip Away, Tiznow, Ghostzapper, Invasor, Curlin, Zenyatta, American Pharoah, and Gun Runner helped cement their legacies with a victory in the Classic while countless other standouts tried and came up short on Breeders’ Cup day.

The Classic regularly draws the best dirt horses from across the world as the anchor to the World Championships. Over the last 20 years (2001 through 2020), the Classic has delivered several dominant performances by powerful favorites as well as five winners that paid at least $20 for a $2 win bet, including $89 victor Volponi in 2002.

Let’s take a deep dive into the last 20 years of the Classic to seek out some trends and tips that might be helpful when handicapping the 2021 edition Nov. 6 at Del Mar.

Vino Rosso in 2019. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Consistent Excellence

If you are looking through the list of contenders for the 2021 Classic in search of a winner, the one thing you don’t want to see is a string of up-and-down performances. If there is one lesson to be learned from the last 20 years of this race, it is that the winner typically is a proven elite racehorse, one that’s very fast and consistent.

  • Twelve of the 20 won their final prep races – 14 if you count 2019 winner Vino Rosso, who crossed the finish line first in the Jockey Club Gold Cup but was disqualified and placed second. Ten of those 12 came out of a Grade 1 win (11 counting Vino Rosso).
  • Eighteen of the last 20 Classic winners finished first or second in their final prep and none ran outside of the top three.
  • Of the last 20 Classic winners, 18 were Grade 1 winners entering the race (17 in a row entering this year) and the other two – 43.50-1 winner Volponi (2002) and 14.20-1 winner Pleasantly Perfect (2003) – had won a Grade 2 race.
  • From June of the year of their Classic win through their final prep race, the last 20 Breeders’ Cup winners won 36 of 62 starts for a 58% win rate and finished in the top three in a remarkable 59 of their 62 combined starts (95%) during the same timeframe.

That Sounds Logical

While only five of the last 20 editions of the Classic have been won by favorites, this race is not typically won by an outsider, as you might have surmised based on the statistics above about the importance of impeccable credentials leading into the Classic. Sure, you can’t completely rule out an upset, but the last nine winners went off at single-digit odds and the highest-priced winner in the last six years (Vino Rosso in 2019) returned $11.20 on a $2 win bet.

  • As mentioned above, only five of the last 20 editions of the Classic were won by post-time favorites, ranging from 7-10 odds for American Pharoah in 2015 to 2.80-1 for Zenyatta in 2009.
  • However, 12 of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Classic winners prevailed at odds of 5.2-1 or less and 15 of the last 20 won at 7-1 odds or less. So 60% of the time from 2001 to 2020, the winner paid $12.40 or less for a $2 win bet and 75% of the time the winner paid $16 or less.
  • The average odds for the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner from 2001 through 2020: 7.6-1 with median win odds of 4.5-1, which amount to an $11 payout for a $2 win bet.
  • Recent history has been even less promising for longshot seekers as the last eight winners went off at 6.10-1 odds or less and seven of the eight were won by one of the top three betting choices.

2012 winner Fort Larned. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Let’s Talk Upset Winners

  • Five of the last 20 Classic winners paid $20 or more for a $2 win bet: Volponi ($89, 2002), Pleasantly Perfect ($30.40, 2003), Raven’s Pass ($29, 2008), Drosselmeyer ($31.60, 2011), and Fort Larned ($20.80, 2012).
  • Looking closer at the $20 winners over the past 20 years, three of the five profiled as closer or closer/stalker types.
  • Not surprisingly, the two runners who did not enter the Classic as established Grade 1 winners – Volponi in 2002 and Pleasantly Perfect in 2003 – came from this group of longshots.
  • Only one of the five $20 winners came out of a Grade/Group 1 win, and that was European invader Raven’s Pass who won the Classic on a synthetic main track after winning his final prep race on the grass. One longshot winner (Pleasantly Perfect, 2003) came out of a Grade 2 win and the other three finished in the top three but did not win their final prep.
  • The five $20 winners did not boast nearly as strong recent form as other winners, combining to win six of 18 starts from June through their final prep for a 33% strike rate compared with 58% for the group as a whole. But they were consistently very competitive, having run in the top three in 16 of 18 starts (89%) during this timeframe.
  • The profile of a longshot seems to be an off-the-pace type who might not have many recent wins on the resume but almost always finishes in the top three.

Blame (right) denies Zenyatta in 2010. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Interesting Nuggets

I typically like to spend a good segment of these historical blogs looking at running style, but the Classic does not seem to favor any style in particular over the last 20 editions, so I’ll include some of that here along with a few other trends I thought were interesting.

  • Seven horses who preferred to race on or near the lead have won in the last 20 editions of the Classic with four dedicated closers winning during that span. I classified three as stalker/press-the-pace types entering the race, four as stalkers, and the other two I pegged as closers/stalkers. It’s a diverse group of Breeders’ Cup Classic winners.
  • Along those lines, the median position of the Classic winner has been fourth/fifth (4.5) and about three lengths back after the opening quarter-mile and fourth/fifth and about 3 ¾ lengths back after a half-mile.
  • The deep closers skewed the averages only a bit with the average winner sitting a little better than fifth (4.8) and about four to 4 ¼ lengths back after the first quarter-mile and 4 ¼ lengths back on average after a half-mile.
  • By early stretch, however, the winner was by median a half-length in front and on average between one-quarter of a length to a half-length in front.
  • Six of the last 20 Classic winners were 3-year-olds taking on older horses, including four of the last seven editions.
  • None of the last 20 Classic winners was older than 5. In fact, the Classic has never been won by a horse older than 5 years old. Zenyatta came the closest when a head short to Blame during her 6-year-old season in 2010.
  • Sixteen of the 20 made their final prep race in either New York or Southern California, with 11 Classic winners coming out of a New York prep.
  • The average winning Equibase Speed Figure for the Breeders’ Cup Classic from 2001 through 2020 was 121 with a median of 120.5. The winning figure ranged from a 113 for Bayern in 2014 to a 130 for Gun Runner in 2017.
  • Four of the last 20 editions of the Classic were decided by a neck or less with three decided by a nose (Tiznow over Sakhee in 2001; Mucho Macho Man over Will Take Charge in 2013; and Bayern over Toast of New York in 2014).
  • Seventeen of the last 20 Classic winners were bred in Kentucky with one bred in California, one in Florida, and the other in Argentina.

Which 2021 Contenders Fit the Profile?

Knicks Go (Eclipse Sportswire)

Let’s start with probable favorite Knicks Go, who is unbeaten in races around two turns this year, rides a three-race winning streak into the Classic, and is a proven Grade 1 winner with speed figures that indicate he’s fast enough to win. The two concerns are that he’s never competed in a race longer than 1 1/8 miles and dedicated front-runners who need the lead have won only two of the last 20 editions of the Classic. He also should face some early pressure with several others expected who also prefer to set the pace. Still, Knicks Go’s tactical speed is an asset and Gun Runner led from start to finish in the only previous edition of the Classic held at Del Mar.

After Knicks Go, I think you have to look next at a rock-solid group of 3-year-olds in Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit.

If Knicks Go does not start as the favorite, I have no doubt the option the betting public would be drawn to is Essential Quality. In short, he’s a tenacious beast of a racehorse who was a champion at 2 and has won eight of nine career starts. His lone defeat was a fourth, beaten by a length, in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and all he’s done since then is win the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, the Jim Dandy Stakes, and the Runhappy Travers Stakes. He’s ultra-consistent with Equibase Speed Figures of 109-109-109-107-109 in his last five races, but there lies the one major concern: Is he fast enough? Based on Equibase Speed Figures, he would need to improve, which is always a possibility in the fall of a 3-year-old’s season. Several other speed-figure makers have Essential Quality right there with his competition, and he’s proved he can win a battle in the stretch.

Hot Rod Charlie has likewise been consistently excellent this year. He’s crossed the finish line first in three of six starts with a second and two thirds. He was disqualified from first and placed second for causing interference in the Haskell Stakes, but Hot Rod Charlie’s effort in that race was terrific. He earned a 113 Equibase Speed Figure for the Haskell and then won the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby by 2 ¼ lengths in his final prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, earning an eye-catching 120 Equibase Speed Figure. The Oxbow colt is in terrific form. He’s on the right trajectory, fast enough to win, and versatile enough to run well from on or off the pace. He looks like a serious win candidate.

Medina Spirit (Eclipse Sportswire)

Last year, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won the Breeders’ Cup Classic with front-running Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Authentic, so it would be foolish to not give strong consideration to this year’s Derby winner Medina Spirit, who shares the same trainer and running style. Baffert has won the Classic four times in the last seven years and Medina Spirit has been consistent against elite competition all season, winning four of eight starts and never finishing outside the top three. He’s 2-for-2 since June and enters off a dominant, five-length win against older males in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes. He tied his career best Equibase Speed Figure in the Awesome Again, matching the 110 he earned for winning the Kentucky Derby. The major concern here is that Medina Spirit most likely will have to run significantly faster than he has to win while battling to set the pace with Knicks Go, Hot Rod Charlie, and Art Collector in this field.

Which brings us to … Art Collector. A very nice 3-year-old in 2020, he has really come on this summer and fall as a 4-year-old in winning the Alydar Stakes, Grade 2 Charles Town Classic, and Grade 1 Woodward Stakes in his last three races, all victories by 1 ½ lengths. He can set or press the pace and, on paper, he’s fast enough to win with a 110-115-120 string of Equibase Speed Figures in his last three races. Art Collector is a proven Grade 1 winner coming out of a prep race in New York for a trainer in Hall of Famer Bill Mott who has won the Classic twice.  The prospective field for this Breeders’ Cup Classic is very competitive at the top as all five I’ve mentioned thus far profile as legitimate win candidates. Distance is the one hurdle Art Collector must clear to win the $6 million race – he faded late in the Preakness Stakes a year ago in his one attempt going longer than 1 1/8 miles.

Express Train (Eclipse Sportswire)

For those looking for a potential upset candidate, Max Player could be a $20 winner given the strength at the top. He’s proven at the distance having won the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, both at 1 ¼ miles, in his last two starts. His 113 Equibase Speed Figures for those two wins make him competitive and he’s probably going to be somewhere around 10-1 to 12-1 odds, which is solid value. For a bigger longshot, I like Express Train. He’s placed four times in Grade 1 races and won the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap on this Del Mar main track in July. He enters off a third-place finish in the Awesome Again Stakes for trainer John Shirreffs, who won the Classic in 2009 with Zenyatta, but Express Train should be coming from well off the pace and should get a better setup than he did in the Awesome Again.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic is a difficult race to analyze. Essential Quality is, in my opinion, the most likely winner, but I really like the chances of Hot Rod Charlie and Art Collector as well, which means I’ll be waiting to watch the tote board when it comes to making my bets. I’m pretty firm on my longshot pick though as I think Express Train has a terrific chance to outrun his odds and spice up the payouts for bets like the trifecta and maybe even exacta. Who knows? Maybe a multiple-horse pace duel will set up the race for a deep closer and Express Train rolls past to win in a stunning upset.

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