Getting to Know Breeders’ Cup Classic Contender Knicks Go

Racing
Knicks Go, with Joel Rosario aboard, led from start to finish in winning the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 7. (Adam Coglianese/NYRA)

The field for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic begins to take shape in early summer after the Triple Crown races conclude. Last weekend an expenses-paid berth to the $6 million Classic was awarded to Knicks Go for winning the $925,000 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.

Knicks Go entered the Whitney as one of the leaders of the older dirt male division and a major player for the Longines Classic, and his runaway victory as the 1.05-1 favorite bolstered his already powerful credentials.

While Knicks Go is, on paper, arguably the standout of the division there is at least one legitimate question when evaluating his chances to win the 1 ¼-mile on Nov. 6, so let’s take a deeper dive and examine his chances to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Race Résumé

Knicks Go’s racing career is in some ways like an elite professional sports franchise that just endured one season in which nothing went right.

After winning the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity as a 2-year-old in 2019 using the front-running style he has become known for, Knicks Go finished second in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in his next start to establish himself as a top juvenile.

During his 3-year-old campaign, however, pretty much nothing went right.

Jockey Joel Rosario and Knicks Go. (Adam Coglianese/NYRA)

Knicks Go was beaten by 13 lengths, 51 lengths, and eight lengths in three starts on the Triple Crown trail and did not win once in eight races in 2019. He finished second in the Ellis Park Derby and in an allowance race, but things got so bad he was even tested for the first time on grass in a dismal 10th-place finish that November at Churchill Downs.

Following the disappointing 3-year-old campaign, owner Korea Racing Authority, which purchased Knicks Go for $87,000 as a yearling, transferred him to trainer Brad Cox for 2020.

Cox had won a pair of Breeders’ Cup races in 2019 with British Idiom (Juvenile Fillies Turf) and Covfefe (Filly and Mare Sprint) and ran third in the Preakness with Owendale while finishing fourth among North American trainers by wins (235) and purse earnings ($17.6 million).

Cox’s star was rising, and he was able to get Knicks Go back on the right track quickly. The colt led from start to finish to post a 7 ½-length win in a February 2020 allowance-optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park before an extended layoff. He returned with another dominant performance in October 2020 at Keeneland, where he led from start to finish to post a 10 ¼-length win in another allowance-optional claiming race.

After earning a then-career top 116 Equibase Speed Figure, Knicks Go was tested again against elite competition in the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland, and he dominated by 3 ½ lengths to cap a 3-for-3 season with his second Grade 1 win.

Knicks Go was one of four Breeders’ Cup winners for Cox, who subsequently took home the 2020 Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer.

Knicks Go maintained that late-season momentum with a running start to 2021 as he blitzed the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational to the tune of a front-running 2 ¾-length win. That victory gave Knicks Go a legitimate claim to being the best older dirt horse in training, but he faded to fourth in the Saudi Cup in February and then finished fourth in his U.S. return in the Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap in June. Suddenly, Knicks Go looked very beatable.

Cox gave him an easier assignment in the Grade 3 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap July 2, and Knicks Go put the two-race blip behind him with a confidence-building 10 ¼-length win. He followed with another overwhelming 4 ½-length victory over a small, but quality field in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes that included Maxfield (7-for-8 lifetime entering the race), Silver State (entered on six-race winning streak), and 2000 Preakness Stakes winner Swiss Skydiver.

Knicks Go has regained his best form as he earned a 117 Equibase Speed Figure for the Cornhusker and a 118 for the Whitney, in which he completed 1 1/8 miles in a sprightly 1:47.70.

“Maybe down the lane at the sixteenth pole I thought, ‘Oh wow, he’s going to win this thing,’ and at that point I was thinking, ‘What a horse. What a performance,’” Cox said. “For him to go forty-six and change and spread out down the backside and get away from them and just kick on at the eighth pole and have to fight off some really, really good challengers. This was an incredibly deep group of horses and I’m very proud of the effort of my horse today.”

Knicks Go has the two best Beyer Speed Figures on the main track at one mile or longer this year: 111 for the Whitney and 113 for the Cornhusker. In fact, the 113 and 111 Beyer Speed Figures for Knicks Go’s last two races are the highest of the year for any age, distance, surface.

When Knicks Go is at his best, he’s a brilliant racehorse and especially dangerous when he is the controlling speed in two-turn races. He is now 3-for-3 in 1 1/8-mile races in the U.S. – the Saudi Cup was a one-turn, 1 1/8-mile race – but he has never tried the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Longines Classic. That remains a question to be answered, but if the Whitney was a test to see if he might be a 1 ¼-mile horse, Knick Go certainly passed with flying colors.

Pace pressure is always the biggest concern with Knicks Go. He’s won eight of 12 starts when he led after the opening quarter-mile; he’s winless in 10 races when he did not seize command immediately. If Knicks Go faces significant early pressure while stretching out to 1 ¼ miles, the dynamics of the race change dramatically. He’s not the same horse when forced to race behind another runner early and even steady pressure could make him vulnerable at Del Mar Nov. 6.

Pedigree

Knicks Go is from the second crop of 2012 Haskell Invitational Stakes winner Paynter, who also ran second that year in the Belmont Stakes. Knicks Go, with $5,368,995 in purse earnings to date, is Paynter’s leading career earner by a wide margin.

Paynter is the sire of 19 stakes winners to date and four group or graded stakes winners.

Knicks Go’s dam (mother) is multiple stakes-winning turf sprinter Kosmo’s Buddy, by Outflanker, whose five wins came at distances ranging from five furlongs to 6 ½ furlongs. Knicks Go is one of four winners from five starters produced by Kosmo’s Buddy and her lone stakes winner to date.

His second dam (maternal grandmother), Vaulted, by Allen’s Prospect, had more stamina as she was a winner at 1 1/8 miles and placed in stakes at that distance on both turf and dirt. Third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Aube d’Or, by Medaille d’Or, was a stakes winner on grass at 1 1/16 miles and a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to Grade 1 winner and multiple stakes producer Countus In.

Knicks Go is a lot like sire Paynter in that he can be especially brave when left alone in front and there is some underlying stamina on the bottom half of this pedigree.

On paper, Knicks Go looks like the fastest older male in training right now, but the shape of the Longines Classic and whether he is challenged early very likely will determine whether or not he finds himself in the winner’s circle at Del Mar.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!