Nine defending or former Breeders' Cup winners are among 187 horses, including a record 46 from overseas, pre-entered in the 34th World Championships. The season-culminating event will be held for the first time at Del Mar on Nov. 3 and 4.
Arrogate, the thrilling winner of last year’s Breeders' Cup Classic, tops the list of reigning champions as he opposes white-hot Gun Runner in what looms as one of the most dramatic editions of the $6 million Classic in that race’s rich history.
“I have nothing but respect for the deep and quality field in this year’s Classic,” said Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who conditions streaking Gun Runner, during a national conference call. “It will be extremely exciting.”
In all, the 34th Breeders’ Cup is comprised of 13 Grade 1 races with purses and awards totaling more than $28 million. The $2 million Longines Distaff is the last of four Cup races on Nov. 3; the Classic, televised nationally from 8-9 p.m. ET on NBC, provides the centerpiece on Nov. 4.
The Classic would be interesting enough if it pitted Arrogate, the all-time leading earner in North American history with $17,302,600, against Gun Runner, who rebounded from a runner-up finish to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup by sweeping the Stephen Foster, Whitney and Woodward.
But it offers much more.
Bob Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer at the peak of his powers, also is expected to saddle Collected, West Coast and Mubtaahij for the mile-and-a-quarter Classic. In addition, he pre-entered Cupid, although he is expected to start in the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, his first preference. The late Bobby Frankel (1993) and Bill Mott (2012) share the record for most Classic starters with three.
Yet Baffert is treating his Murderer’s Row of sorts as if it is merely business as usual.
“Our barn is set up to play at this level,” he said. “We’re fortunate they’re all healthy.”
Collected was last seen defeating stablemate Arrogate in the Pacific Classic, his latest success in a superb campaign that has brought four victories in as many starts for the determined 4-year-old. West Coast, like Arrogate last year, missed the Triple Crown races but quickly made up for lost time. He comes off resounding victories in the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby. Mubtaahij has come on after being transferred to Baffert. He earned his place in the starting gate by capturing the Grade 1 Awesome Again at Santa Anita on Sept. 30.
Baffert is making no predictions as he aims for this fourth consecutive Classic triumph following the successes of Bayern, Triple Crown champion American Pharoah and, of course, Arrogate.
“You get them ready,” he said, “and hope they run the best race of their life.”
It will likely take that to get the job done in the Classic. Much of the scrutiny in the days leading to the race will fall on Arrogate. He looked nearly unbeatable during a four-race tear in which he set a track record in the Travers, ran down eventual Horse of the Year California Chrome in the Classic, coasted in the inaugural running of the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational and made a stunning last-to-first comeback in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
His downfall, though, was equally shocking when he could do no better than fourth at odds of 1-20 in the San Diego Handicap and could not quite overtake Collected in the Pacific Classic. He will attempt to join Tiznow (2000-01) as the only horses to repeat in the Classic.
Two of the more intriguing storylines revolve around the mares Lady Eli and Stellar Wind, both of whom are making their final starts before they are offered at Keeneland’s November sale.
Lady Eli, winner of eight graded stakes races, made it all the way back from life-threatening laminitis to miss by a nose in the Filly and Mare Turf last year. Trainer Chad Brown is confident she can provide a fitting end to her memorable career.
“She’s training super, better than ever,” he said.
Stellar Wind has won 10 of 15 career starts but endured disappointments in her previous two attempts at the Distaff. She placed second after a difficult trip in 2015 and ran fourth after she broke slowly last year.
There is no margin for error when the best of the best clash.