The $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic is the marquee race of the two-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park and one of the most important races worldwide for Thoroughbred racehorses.
While this year’s field lacks a superstar like last year’s dominant winner Flightline, the 1 ¼-mile race features a rising 3-year-old phenom in Arcangelo and a decorated international invader in Japan-based Ushba Tesoro, who is 3-for-3 this year highlighted by a 2 ¾-length victory in the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline in March.
The last 20 years of Breeders’ Cup Classic winners include some of the most important racehorses of the 21st Century such as Ghostzapper (2004), Invasor (2006), Curlin (2007), Zenyatta (2009), Blame (2010), American Pharoah (2015), Arrogate (2016), Gun Runner (2017), and Flightline (2022).
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the last 20 winners of the Breeders’ Cup Classic and try to identify tips, trends, and historical indicators that might help analyze this year’s contenders. First, we’ll focus on the editions from 2003 through 2022 and then we’ll also take a look at the past editions held on a dirt main track at Santa Anita, the host of this this year’s event, in 1986, 1993, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2019. For the second exercise, I did not include the events held on an all-weather surface at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009, not because they are any less important but simply because dirt and synthetic surfaces play much differently.
Impeccable On-Track Performance
The most important indicator for Breeders’ Cup Classic success over the last 20 editions has been, not surprisingly, consistent excellence. Proven racehorses at the top level in terrific form win the $6 million Classic.
- Fourteen of the 20 Breeders’ Cup winners from 2003 to 2022 won their final prep races – 15 if you count 2019 Classic winner Vino Rosso, who crossed the finish line first in the Jockey Club Gold Cup but was disqualified and placed second. Eleven of those 14 came out of a Grade 1 win (12 of 15, if counting Vino Rosso).
- Of the last 20 Classic winners, the most recent 19 were Grade 1 winners entering the race and the other – 14.20-1 winner Pleasantly Perfect (2003) – was a Grade 2 victor.
- From June of the year of their Classic win through their final prep race, the last 20 Breeders’ Cup winners won 40 of 61 starts for a 65.6% win rate and finished in the top three in a remarkable 57 of their 61 combined starts (93.4%) during the same timeframe.
- Nineteen of the last 20 Classic winners finished first or second in their final prep and none ran outside of the top three.
The average win payout for the Breeders’ Cup Classic in its history is the third-highest among the 14 races at $23.50 – the Turf Sprint is the highest with an average of $27.76 – but the Classic payout is a more than a bit deceiving. The single greatest upset in the history of the World Championships came in 1993 at Santa Anita Park when little-known French invader Arcangues won the Classic at 133.60-1 odds for a record $2 win payout of $269.20. That skews the average significantly.
The last 20 years of the Breeders’ Cup Classic paint a different picture with an average win payout of $12.60 (5.3-1) and a median win payout of $10.20 (4.1-1). Narrow that down to the last 10 years, and the average win payout for a $2 bet dips to $8.
- Six of the last 20 editions of the Classic were won by post-time favorites, ranging from 0.44-1 odds for Flightline last year to 2.80-1 for Zenyatta in 2009.
- Fourteen of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Classic winners prevailed at odds of 5.2-1 or less and 16 of the last 20 won at 7-1 odds or less. So, 70% of the time from 2003 to 2022, the winner paid $12.40 or less for a $2 win bet and 80% of the time the winner paid $16 or less.
- Each of the last 10 winners went off at 6.10-1 odds or less and nine of the 10 races were won by one of the top three betting choices.
Other Notable Trends
- While the last 20 editions of the Classic show that a variety of running styles can succeed in the 1 ¼-mile race, speed has been increasingly important of late. Eight of the last 11 contests were won by horses who preferred to race on or near the lead.
- There were four closers that won since 2003, plus two stalker-closer types, however all occurred in 2011 or before and two of those came on all-weather surface at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009.
- There has been a distinct East Coast bias in terms of where Classic winners prepped as 11 made their final pre-Breeders’ Cup start in New York. Five others prepped in Southern California – four at Santa Anita and Flightline at Del Mar last year – with the others coming out of races at Churchill Downs, Parx Racing, Pimlico, and a stakes in Europe.
- Don’t discount a good 3-year-old facing older horses as they have won six of the last 20 editions, including Authentic most recently in 2020.
- Look for a true distance horse. The average race distance during the season leading into the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the past 20 winners was 1 1/8 miles and the median was the same. There really was only one time in the last 20 years that a miler stretched out to win the Classic and that was Raven’s Pass in 2008 on the synthetic surface at Santa Anita. You want to see plenty of races at distances ranging from 1 1/16 miles to 1 ½ miles in the past performances.
So, Just Pick a Favorite and Call It a Day? Not Necessarily …
If you are looking for a reason to hold out hope the 2023 Breeders’ Cup Classic might produce an upset, consider the track. Santa Anita has hosted the Breeders’ Cup 10 times previously, but for this exercise let’s focus on the eight editions held on a dirt main track at the Arcadia, Calif., venue in 1986, 1993, 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2019.
- Four of the eight winners on dirt at Santa Anita paid $20.80 or more for a $2 bet, led by the aforementioned Arcangues (a whopping $269.20 winner). Skywalker scored at 10.1-1 in 1986, Pleasantly Perfect won at 14.20-1 in 2003, and Fort Larned prevailed in a 9.40-1 mild upset in 2012.
- None of the eight winners in Breeders’ Cup Classics held on the dirt main track at Santa Anita was the favorite (in fact, only Zenyatta was a winning Classic favorite at Santa Anita on the all-weather in 2009).
- No one particular running style has been especially potent at Santa Anita in these eight Classics – three winners were pace or pace-pressing types, three were stalkers, and two profiled as closers – but you don’t want to leave too much ground to make up late. None of the eight was more than 1 ½ lengths back at the eighth pole and four of the eight were in front.
- Seven of the eight winners were proven Grade/Group 1 winners: Skywalker (1986), Arcangues (1993), Pleasantly Perfect (2003), Fort Larned (2012), Mucho Macho Man (2013), Bayern (2014), Arrogate (2016), and Vino Rosso (2019). Pleasantly Perfect had won consecutive editions of the Grade 2 Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Santa Anita heading into the 2003 Breeders’ Cup, the ’03 Goodwood win serving as his final prep.
- As you might imagine given the upsets, recent form was not as strong among this group of eight winners as they combined to win only 33% of their starts (9 of 27) from June through their final prep race, but they did record top-three finishes in 81.5% of those starts.
Thoughts on 2023 Contenders
In the historical notes above I mentioned that six of the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Classic were won by 3-year-olds and this year’s contingent is both deep and strong. Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and Travers Stakes winner Arcangelo fits the mold of a true distance horse peaking at the perfect time as he rides a four-race winning streak into the Breeders’ Cup Classic for trainer Jena Antonucci. Other talented 3-year-olds include Arabian Knight and Geaux Rocket Ride, the one-two-finishers, respectively in the FanDuel Racing Pacific Classic on Sept. 2. Both have terrific tactical speed, are in impeccable form, and from the barn of Hall of Fame trainers – Bob Baffert trains Arabian Knight and Richard Mandella conditions Geaux Rocket Ride.
Side note on Mandella: He won the Classic in 2003 with Pleasantly Perfect and owns nine career Breeders’ Cup wins from 48 starters (18.75%). That is an impressive strike rate, but West Coast-based Mandella has traditionally loved home cooking at the Breeders’ Cup as all nine of his wins have come at Santa Anita Park. In fact, he has won with nine of 24 Breeders’ Cup starters at Santa Anita for a remarkable 37.5% win rate.
Another 3-year-old who should not be overlooked is Pennsylvania Derby winner Saudi Crown, a front-runner who has never been worse than second in five starts for trainer Brad Cox. Both of his defeats came by a nose. He’s talented and fast.
Among the older horses, let’s start with Japan’s Ushba Tesoro. He’s been almost unbeatable since switching from turf to dirt in April 2022, winning seven of eight races on the dirt on fast, muddy, sloppy tracks … you name it. He’s a flat-out racehorse. He was rested after the Dubai World Cup and enters off a facile prep win in Japan on Sept. 27 that should have him in peak condition. There looks to be a ton of speed in this year’s Classic and that could bolster the chances of Ushba Tesoro, Arcangelo, and other off-the pace runners.
White Abarrio has not raced since a 6 ¼-length romp in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes Aug. 5 at Saratoga that earned an eye-catching 121 Equibase Speed Figure and 110 Beyer Speed Figure. He’s the fastest horse on the field on paper and he’s well-rested and in good form. The big concern is the 1 ¼-mile distance, especially considering this will be his first race in three months.
Given the number of contenders with speed on target for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Zandon looks like a live longshot as a deep closer who has finished no worse than second in four starts this year. He’s also finished in the top three in both previous starts at 1 ¼ miles and enters off a career-best 114 Equibase Speed Figure when winning the Grade 2 Woodward Stakes by 4 ¼ lengths. He checks quite a few boxes and should be a very nice price.