Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
A week after reviewing Game Winner’s decisive victory in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, let’s take a closer look at the runner-up from that race, Knicks Go, a Grade 1 winner who fought gamely in the stretch at 40.50-1 odds to hold on for second.
Ability: While none of the other 12 entrants was a true match for Game Winner on Breeders’ Cup Friday, Knicks Go presented the undefeated victor with his most serious challenge in the stretch of the Juvenile.
Knicks Go seized command and briefly looked poised to edge away to victory, but Game Winner got rolling on his outside to challenge. The two battled for about 20 strides before Game Winner surged clear in the final sixteenth of a mile.
Knicks Go earned a new career-best 98 Equibase Speed Figure, a two-point increase from the 96 he registered for his 70-1 upset victory in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity in October at Keeneland.
Prior to the Breeders’ Futurity, Knicks Go had won one of three starts and finished third in the Arlington-Washington Futurity.
Knicks Go’s front-running win in the Breeders’ Futurity and his second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile stand out in his past performances from a speed-figure perspective as both are at least 16 points higher than his previous best. They also are his two races navigating two turns.
Initially, I had some distance concerns with Knicks Go and, as you’ll see in the pedigree section, some of them remain when considering his chances to excel at the 1 ¼-mile distance of the 2019 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Yet, he does seem to be a racehorse who very much prefers two-turn races rather than sprints, similar to his sire, Paynter, as his speed becomes a more viable weapon.
In the six-furlong Grade 3 Sanford Stakes on July 21 at Saratoga, Knicks Go was sixth by 3 ½ lengths after an opening quarter-mile in 22.26 seconds and sixth after a swift half-mile in 45.49 seconds (he finished fifth, beaten by 9 ½ lengths). The Breeders’ Futurity was a much different scenario as Knicks Go’s speed placed him on the lead through a manageable opening quarter-mile in 23.67 seconds and a half-mile in :47.59 and his determination emerged in the stretch as he pulled away to win the 1 1/16-mile race by 5 ½ lengths. Knicks Go similarly used his early speed to gain position early in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and that allowed him to launch his bid and seize the lead in early stretch.
This $87,000 purchase at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale by owner Korea Racing Authority has developed into a Grade 1 winner capable of competing against the best of his generation. He will need to continue to improve – and improve significantly – to be a serious contender for the first jewel of the Triple Crown, but he showed heart and talent on Future Stars Friday at the Breeders’ Cup.
Running style: Knicks Go excels when he can use his high cruising speed to gain tactical position on or near the pace early in his races. That has been especially effective when stretching out in distance as the tempo is typically not as taxing.
Connections: Knicks Go is owned by KRA Stud Farm, a division of the Korea Racing Authority (KRA). The KRA is the racing authority in South Korea and exists under the supervision of the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. According to its website, KRA aims to contribute to the national finances through horse racing and to develop the South Korean horse industry to enhance the dignity of the nation's horse culture. In addition to Knicks Go, KRA Stud Farm also races Grade 1-placed sprinter Mr. Crow.
Ben Colebrook trains Knicks Go for KRA Stud Farm. Colebrook is a Central Kentucky native whose father, John, was a farm manager in Lexington. He started out breaking yearlings before working with trainers Fred Seitz and Christophe Clement. Colebrook went out on his own in 2012, and he won his first stakes race in October 2014 when Sparkling Review won the Grade 3 Pin Oak Valley View Stakes at Keeneland. Colebrook also won graded stakes with Surgical Strike and Limousine Liberal before Knicks Go gave him his first Grade 1 win in the 2018 Breeders’ Futurity.
Albin Jimenez has been aboard Knicks Go for his two most recent races. A native of Chiriquí, Panama, Jimenez grew up around horses and at age 16 attended the Laffit Pincay Jr. Jockey Training Academy at Presidente Remón Racetrack in Panama City. Jimenez took out his jockey’s license in 2010 and picked up his first stakes win aboard Aggressive Elegance in May 2012. A winner of 1,183 races through Nov. 13, Jimenez guided Lady Fog Horn to victory in the 2016 Grade 2 Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs for his first graded stakes win. As with Colebrook, Knicks Go was Jimenez’s first Grade 1 winner.
Pedigree: Knicks Go is from the second crop of 2012 Haskell Invitational Stakes winner Paynter, runner-up by a neck to Union Rags in the 2012 Belmont Stakes.
Like Knicks Go, Paynter had plenty of speed and was better when stretching out in distance to two-turn races. With his oldest runners only 3 years old, there is not yet sufficient data to make a judgment on Paynter as a stallion. Knicks Go is his top earner and his lone graded-group stakes winner to date. Paynter also is the sire of multiple stakes winners Renaisance Frolic, Dark Artist, and Diamond Dust.
Knicks Go is out of the Outflanker mare Kosmo’s Buddy, a multiple stakes winner sprinting on the grass. Kosmo’s Buddy placed in a stakes on the dirt at one mile as a 2-year-old but she was a career sprinter.
Knicks Go’s grandam (maternal grandmother) is Vaulted, by Allen’s Prospect. Vaulted ran second in three stakes during her career, two at 1 1/8 miles and one at 1 1/16 miles.
This is a pedigree that would not preclude me from latching onto Knicks Go as a Derby hopeful, but it’s also definitely not one that screams classic contender. It’s pretty clear that Knicks Go is better when racing around two turns but, as it is for almost every 3-year-old, the 1 ¼-mile Derby distance will be a major hurdle for him.