A full field of 14 drew into Saturday’s $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, the centerpiece of the 35th annual World Championships, with plenty of intrigue surrounding this year’s renewal.
There is a solid favorite in Accelerate, even if there are questions regarding the strength of his superpowers outside his home base.
There is not one, but two multi-surface talents in Yoshida and Catholic Boy, the youngest of which – Catholic Boy – has thrived most when asked to travel 1 ¼ miles, a distance that has long been held as the true test of stamina in North American dirt racing and which he will be asked again to handle on Saturday.
There are sentimental favorites (Discreet Lover, Gunnevera, and Mind Your Biscuits), mercurial stars (Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow), and two top-level talents from the barn of Hall of Famer Bob Baffert (West Coast and McKinzie), both who enter the race well-rested and give Baffert a good chance to win his fourth Breeders’ Cup Classic in five years. There’s even an international wonder in Roaring Lion whose connections could have easily let his last triumph stand as his swansong.
While the 2018 edition of Breeders' Cup Classic has been cited for its lack of overt star power, it has answered the bell in terms of providing a truly competitive field.
At the forefront is Hronis Racing's multiple Grade 1 winner Accelerate, the California-based model of progression whose résumé, in most years, would be one that drains the confidence of his challengers.
Whereas last year he was the surprise conqueror of Baffert’s champion Arrogate , this season Accelerate has become the unflappable leader of the handicap ranks, posting five wins from six starts including four Grade 1 triumphs – three of which have come at a mile and a quarter. Accelerate drew the far outside post in Saturday’s Classic, but a versatile running style is his calling card, and he was installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite.
Were it not for a close loss in the Oaklawn Handicap last spring, Accelerate would be unblemished in his 5-year-old season. And were it not for trainer John Sadler's much discussed albatross that is a 0-for-41 Breeders' Cup record, his chestnut protégé with a powerful turn of foot likely would have more respect as he attempts to stamp a championship-worthy season with his first victory outside of California.
"He does (get respect) out here in California, no doubt about that," Sadler said. "He's a really good horse, he has a great record this year, and he's probably beaten 40 or 50 Bob Baffert horses at different times. If he does (win the Classic), then he deserves it. We know (a Breeders' Cup win) is going to happen at some point. What's comforting is the fact that you have really good horses."
Fellow Classic entrants Catholic Boy and Yoshida both hold the distinction of winning Grade 1 races on turf and dirt this year, with the latter taking the 1 1/8-mile Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets in his main track debut Sept. 1. Were it not for Triple Crown winner Justify, Catholic Boy could have a solid claim for divisional honors off a season that has seen him capture the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes prior to his four-length romp in the Aug. 25 Runhappy Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, both races held at 1 ¼ miles.
Since arriving at Churchill Downs a couple weeks ago, Catholic Boy has aced the eye test in terms of his physical appearance. And no matter what condition Mother Nature leaves the dirt track in Louisville come Nov. 3, trainer Jonathan Thomas feels his charge has given him the luxury of taking that worry off the table.
"(The Classic) is definitely wide open in that there are a lot of very accomplished horses, probably five or six where if they won, it wouldn't surprise anybody," Thomas said. "There is certainly not a horse who is going to be 7-5 at post time that we're all kind of conceding defeat to, and that opens up things. It opens things up tactically."
Catholic Boy's most successful tactic has been to sit on or just off the pace, but that first flight could feature multiple runners who have all flashed brilliance when allowed to dictate terms.
Godolphin's multiple Group 1 winner Thunder Snow was at his best when he took control early in the March 31 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline and kicked clear of champion West Coast en route to a 5 ¾ length win. The son of Helmet has only had two starts since that victory, including a close loss to longshot Discreet Lover in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in September. He also has the infamy of his aborted run in the 2017 Kentucky Derby hanging over him for his return to Churchill Downs.
Both West Coast and his Grade 1-winning stablemate McKinzie are capable of keeping things honest on the front end, as is regally bred Mendelssohn, who gamely held for third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup after prompting a hot early pace. Perhaps the biggest 'X' factors in the potential Classic outcome, though, hinge on how far multiple Grade 1 winner Mind Your Biscuits can kick on at a distance he’s yet to tackle and how Qatar Racing's four-time Group 1 winner Roaring Lion handles the kickback in his final career start and first try on dirt.
Having already established himself among the world's best sprinters, Mind Your Biscuits will attempt to add another elite level to his reputation by stretching his ability over 1 ¼ miles. The son of Posse scored his first two-turn win in the 1 1/8-miles Lukas Classic Stakes at Churchill on Sept. 29, and would benefit greatly if things get heated among those with early speed, as would late-running Gunnevera.
Roaring Lion's class is beyond dispute following four Group 1 wins in Europe, but he faces a big ask as he travels stateside for a main-track slugfest just two weeks after his win in the Oct. 20 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot.
For a complete rundown of Breeders' Cup Classic starters in post-position order and with morning-line odds, click here.
For a complete rundown of Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff starters in post-position order and with morning-line odds, click here.