With the 2019 Triple Crown season in the rearview mirror, the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” season is in full stride. While “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series races for this year’s event have been taking place since December, the U.S. races are now coming fast and furious the deeper we progress into summer.
In this week’s Getting to Know feature, we take a closer look at McKinzie, who won the Aug. 3 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course and earned an expenses-paid spot in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park.
The Whitney has served as a key springboard to Breeders’ Cup Classic success in recent history with Blame (2010), Fort Larned (2012), and Gun Runner (2018) winning the Saratoga fixture on the way to Classic glory.
Let’s take a closer look at why McKinzie appears to have a terrific chance to become the fourth horse in 10 years to complete the Whitney-Breeders’ Cup Classic double.
McKinzie missed the 2018 Triple Crown races, but he had shown elite ability from the start of his career.
The Street Sense colt posted a 103 Equibase Speed Figure in his debut when winning an October 2017 maiden special weight race by 5 ½ lengths at Santa Anita Park and he’s finished first or second in all but one start since then.
McKinzie won the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity via disqualification in his final start at two, won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes in his 3-year-old bow, and then crossed the finish line first in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes but was placed second via disqualification.
A bruised hock forced McKinzie to miss a planned start in the Santa Anita Derby and, subsequently, to skip the U.S. Triple Crown races. He returned in September 2018 to win the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby by 1 ¾ lengths but could not duplicate that quality effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 3 when fading to 12th, beaten by 31 lengths at Churchill Downs. McKinzie closed the year with a runaway win in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes Dec. 26 when cutting back to seven-eighths of a mile.
Through two seasons, McKinzie had won a trio of Grade 1 races and recorded a career-top 116 Equibase Speed Figure with only one disappointing race.
In 2019, McKinzie has been a picture of consistency with two wins and three runner-up finishes, all by three-quarters of a length or less, in five starts with Equibase Speed Figures ranging from 115 to 121.
It’s easy to see why McKinzie is a serious contender for the Classic:
- He’s crossed the finish line first in four of his six races at Santa Anita Park, host of the 2019 Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
- McKinzie has been fast and consistent all year long.
- The average winning Equibase Speed Figure for the Classic over the last 10 years is 120 with a median of 119, well within McKinzie’s scope.
- Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won 15 Breeders’ Cup races, including the Classic three times, and is the all-time leading trainer by purse earnings.
- McKinzie’s Hall of Fame rider, Mike Smith, has 26 career Breeders’ Cup wins, 10 more than anyone else, and has won the Classic four times.
- McKinzie is also very versatile and can press a slow pace or drop back four or five lengths off a swift pace and still be effective.
“Mike realized you can just sit there and put him anywhere,” Baffert said after the Whitney. “He’s got a kick. Usually, our horses, like Justify or [American] Pharoah, get out there and go. He’s not that kind of horse. It’s better when you don’t have to worry about speed in the race. You can just place him. And he’s quick enough to get out of trouble.”
If you are looking for a hole in McKinzie’s résumé, it would be the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Classic. His only attempt in a race longer than 1 1/8 miles was his 12th-place finish in last year’s Classic. But that was his only try at that distance and it was McKinzie’s first time facing older horses. Plus, McKinzie is a better racehorse now than he was a year ago.
While distance is a legitimate concern, McKinzie should be better equipped to handle 1¼ miles against the best dirt horses in the world this November than he was last November.
This is part of the reason I don’t have too much concern about McKinzie’s ability to continue to excel when stretching out an additional eighth of a mile. His sire, Street Sense, won the Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes at 1¼ miles in 2007 against a very strong group of 3-year-olds. He also finished second by a head to two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in the Preakness.
McKinzie’s dam (mother), Runway Model, by Petionville, won two graded stakes, both at 1 1/16 miles, and his grandam (maternal grandmother) and third dam (maternal great grandmother) both were stakes winners at one mile.
If Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has McKinzie fresh and fit on Nov. 2, I’d be very surprised if he comes up short because of stamina.