The 39th running of the $6 million, Grade 1 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 5 at Keeneland Race Course may be talked about for years if the headline contenders repeat their best efforts to date. Six of the eight horses enter the 1 ¼-mile Classic race off wins in graded stakes, five of those coming in Grade 1s.
None of them have been more impressive than the undefeated Flightline, a lightly raced colt who won the Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic Stakes this summer at 1 ¼ miles in effortless fashion by 19 ¼ lengths. Last year’s Grade 1 Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Life Is Good has only lost twice in 11 races, and in all eleven of his wins – most recently in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes – he’s been unchallenged when leading from start to finish. Then there’s Taiba, who has five career races under his belt (the same as Flightline), including a win in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby in his most recent race. Olympiad has won eight of 12 career starts including the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes at the mile-and-a-quarter distance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic on the same day Flightline won the Pacific Classic. Last year’s Classic fourth-place finisher, Hot Rod Charlie, has proven more mature and stronger in 2022, as evidenced by his win in the Grade 2 Lukas Classic Stakes five weeks ago. In that race, Hot Rod Charlie defeated Rich Strike by a head at the finish. Rich Strike had posted the 80.80-1 upset in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve in May before two poorer efforts, but he then rebounded to nearly earn his second graded stakes win of the year in the Lukas Classic. Epicenter led late in the stretch in the Kentucky Derby before being passed by Rich Strike and has won two important races since then, including the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes. Happy Saver completes the field and has been very consistent in his career as well, with five wins and five runner-up finishes in 12 lifetime starts. He won the 2020 Jockey Club Gold Cup and this year has finished second to three other Classic entrants, behind Olympiad in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes Presented by Sentient Jet, behind Flightline in the Grade 1 Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap, and behind Life Is Good in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes.
Analysis and main win contenders:
An adage in horse racing states “speed is the ultimate bias,” and that is why Life Is Good appears to have a slight edge over the ultra-talented Flightline in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. It also doesn’t hurt that Life Is Good has starting odds of 6-1 compared to 3 -5 for Flightline, so he offers better returns for a win bet. In terms of sheer overall ability, the career-best 125 Equibase Speed Figure Life Is Good earned when winning the Whitney Stakes in August and the 123 figure earned in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes Presented by 1/ST BET this past January stack up against the 128 figure Flightline he earned winning the Pacific Classic in September and the 126 figure earned when winning the Malibu Stakes last December. Then, there’s the likely pace scenario, which suggests Life Is Good will have the early lead as he has post position 2 in the gate and is drawn inside Flightline, who will be breaking from post position 4. This allows Irad Ortiz Jr. on Life Is Good to control the pace for as long as possible, and considering that in each of his six career wins in two-turn races Life Is Good led from start to finish, he has proven to be the kind of athlete which refuses to let another horse pass him. There are also no doubts in my mind Life Is Good can run as well at the Classic distance of a mile and a quarter as he has run at shorter distances, as his sire Into Mischief produced 2020 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Authentic. Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. teamed up to win the 2019 Classic with Vino Rosso and I think they might get their second recent win in the Classic with Life Is Good if this colt gets on the front end and gets into a steady stride, just as he did when winning the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Flightline is undefeated, and untested, in five career starts. He has had layoffs of around four months twice and five months between races before his most recent three-month layoff prior to winning the Pacific Classic – but when he does come onto the track for a race he’s all business and then some. Prior to the Pacific Classic, there was also a question as to whether Flightline could run as well around two turns as he had in his first four races, all held around one turn. That question was put to rest with his performance in the Pacific Classic on Sept. 3, when he went from a half-length behind the leader after a half-mile to 10 lengths in front another quarter-mile later, before easing down at the wire to a 19 ¼-length triumph that earned a 128 figure. Resuming training at the end of September, Flightline has put in some superb morning drills, including one at Keeneland last week which was the fourth best of 62 on the day. He’s likely to be in second position behind Life Is Good shortly after the start of the Classic and, the biggest questions regarding Flightline are 1) whether his Pacific Classic effort was an outlier; and 2) whether he, or any other horse in the field, can pass Life Is Good if that one gets his way alone on the front end.
Olympiad certainly can’t be ignored as a contender to win this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic as he has won eight of 12 races and earned over $2 million to date. Putting aside his loss when fourth behind Life Is Good in the Whitney Stakes in August, Olympiad has won all his other six starts this year, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes in September, at the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Classic. In the Stephen Foster Stakes in July, Olympiad earned a career-best 123 Equibase Speed Figure, which is within hailing distance of the 125 and 128 career-best figures earned by Life Is Good and by Flightline, respectively. Always close to the pace in the early stages, Olympiad demonstrates over and over he understands when to pick up the pace when jockey Junior Alvarado asks him to, and then the colt doggedly wears down the horses in front of him to win. Although it may seem the early speed of Life Is Good and the tremendous athleticism of Flightline may be hard to beat, Olympiad may be the fighter who comes out on top in this skirmish to post the upset (starting at 10-1 odds) in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Comments on the rest of the Classic contenders, none of which would be a total surprise to win:
Taiba was unseasoned when entering the gate for this year’s Kentucky Derby, having run just twice, and he showed it when facing 19 other horses and finishing 12th. Maturing quickly after nearly three months off, he returned to finish a game second, losing by a head to Cyberknife in the TVG.com Haskell Stakes in July with a Equibase 104 figure, before he put forth an even better effort in the Pennsylvania Derby, defeating Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Zandon as well as Cyberknife and earning a 114 figure. Even if you project Taiba to make another 10-point improvement and earn a 124 figure in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, I believe he is a cut below the best in this field.
Happy Saver may not win Saturday, but he could be this year’s Effinex and finish second at high odds. If you don’t recall, Effinex ran second from start to finish in the 2015 Classic behind American Pharoah at 33-1 odds and I think Happy Saver may do the same thing, although he’ll more likely rally from fourth or fifth rather than press the pace. He opens at 30-1 odds, and considering he has finished second three times in four starts this year – behind Olympiad, Flightline and Life is Good – doing so once again is not out of the question. His effort in the Whitney Stakes behind Life Is Good resulted in a career-best 122 figure, and considering Happy Saver has never finished worse than third in three tries at this 1 ¼-mile distance, he is a very interesting longshot in this field.
Hot Rod Charlie is about as game a racehorse as I’ve seen in a long time – he always shows up and fights as hard as he can for the win. Still, his best efforts have come in Grade 2 and Grade 3 races this year, and although he finished a head behind Happy Saver when third in the Whitney Stakes and earned a 122 figure, his other races in North America this year earned 118 and 107 figures, which don’t appear competitive with the top three contenders if repeated on Saturday.
Epicenter’s presence is yet more evidence that this year’s Classic consists of one of the best fields in memory. He has finished first or second in nine of 10 career races and is approaching $3 million in earnings. Epicenter has done little wrong in the 3-year-old division, where he’s competed against fellow sophomores Rich Strike and Taiba, but the Classic is a whole new ballgame facing older horses for the first time. He ran fantastically well when second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, earning 105 and 102 figures. Then after maturing physically, as a 3-year-old does in the late summer, Epicenter earned a 111 figure when winning the Jim Dandy Stakes and nearly the same figure (110) when he won the Travers Stakes at the distance of the Classic. However, this colt has shown no discernable pattern of improvement necessary to reach the 120 or higher figure level any of the top three Classic contenders have proven capable of, and although I love his moxie, Epicenter also appears to be a cut below the best in this field.
Rich Strike provided the earthquake sports fans love with an underdog win in the Kentucky Derby this year at odds of 80.80-1. His win was highly improbable – in fact, him even running in the Derby was improbable, as only a last-minute scratch allowed him to gain entry from the also-eligible list. His effort on the first Saturday in May earned Rich Strike a then-career-best 106 Equibase figure. Following a poor sixth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets in June, Rich Strike took nearly three months off and like Epicenter and other 3-year-olds he started to mature physically and mentally. Two races later, Rich Strike got back to his Derby form when he came a head shy of winning the Lukas Classic Stakes, losing to Hot Rod Charlie. Although the 107 Equibase figure he earned in the Lukas Classic is well short of the best figures earned by the other seven entrants in this race, Rich Strike is on a pattern for improvement in his third start off a layoff, and with his fast-finishing style he could provide some thrills in this year’s Classic.
Win contenders in preference order:
Life Is Good