The path to the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6 is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 14 championship races and $31 million in purses and awards.
This blog provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and three horses whose Breeders’ Cup chances are not quite as strong as they were a week ago. Let’s get right to it and take a look at some of the big movers over the July 4 holiday weekend of racing action.
1. Ce Ce
I’ve often wondered where, exactly, Ce Ce fit within the older female division. She’s good enough to be a Grade 1 winner around two turns as evidenced by her victory in the Apple Blossom Handicap in 2020, but I don’t think she wants to go much longer than 1 1/16 miles and the competition gets really salty at the top of the division when the Longines Distaff rolls around. Ce Ce has always been a fairly effective sprinter but had not really turned in that big performance in a one-turn stakes race … until July 3. The 5-year-old Elusive Quality mare surged clear to win the Grade 2 Princess Rooney Stakes by 3 ¼ lengths at Gulfstream Park, earning an expenses-paid berth to the Nov. 6 Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Del Mar and a 109 Equibase Speed Figure that was her second-fastest overall and best figure in her last 11 starts. Likewise, she posted a strong 98 Beyer Speed Figure and 102 Brisnet speed rating. Ce Ce is now 4-for-7 in one-turn races and has won two in a row at the seven-furlong distance of the Filly and Mare Sprint. Perhaps after running in races ranging from 6 ½ furlongs to 1 1/8 miles over her first three seasons, Ce Ce finally has found her niche sprinting.
2. Knicks Go
One of the fastest dirt horses in training in the U.S., Knicks Go made it onto the cooling down list in the first edition of this Breeders’ Cup blog for 2021 after back-to-back disappointing races. He finished fourth in both the $20 million Saudi Cup and the Hill ‘n’ Dale Met Mile, the latter as the overwhelming 4-5 favorite. He rebounded nicely July 2 in the Grade 3 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap and, although he beat an overmatched field, he posted a lifetime-top 117 Equibase Speed Figure after completing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.33 en route to a 10 ¼-length romp. The 111 Brisnet speed rating also was eye-catching as was his 113 Beyer Speed Figure, the fastest in North America this year. We already knew Knicks Go was fast – he posted dominant wins in both the 2020 Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and 2021 Pegasus World Cup – but now it looks like he’s back in form after a trip to the Middle East and ready for a big second half for trainer Brad Cox and owner Korea Racing Authority. If he targets a repeat win in the FanDuel Dirt Mile, which seems like an ideal spot although he could try the 1 ¼-mile Longines Classic, Knicks Go will be formidable to say the least.
3. Max Player
This week’s Getting to Know profile of a Breeders’ Cup contender focused on Max Player, so I’ll try to keep this a bit shorter than the first two capsules. He’s a bit inconsistent to be considered a major candidate for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at this point despite a career-best effort July 3 when winning the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park. The career-best 101 Beyer Speed Figure and 113 Equibase Speed Figure sure mark a step in the right direction and he beat a couple of quality horses in Mystic Guide and Happy Saver, but the Suburban was his first win since February 2020. Two of his three career victories, including the Suburban, came on sloppy racetracks, so consider me skeptical for now. I’ll need to see a repeat effort on a fast (dry) main track to buy stock in Max Player, but he no doubt has boosted his standing within the older male division.
Also-Eligibles: I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from First Captain in his first three starts but I’m not ready to peg him as a serious threat for the Breeders’ Cup Classic off a win over an overmatched group in the July 5 in the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes at Belmont Park. Definitely worthy a spot in your Equibase Virtual Stable … Mind Control halted an eight-race winless stretch by outfinishing 2-5 favorite Firenze Fire to win the Grade 2 John A. Nerud Stakes by a head. The 113 Equibase Speed Figure was four ticks off his previous best earned in March 2020. Not sure he’s got the stamina to be a serious threat in the FanDuel Dirt Mile and he probably is just a cut below the best sprinters, but Mind Control is worth watching. … I’m a big fan of Army Wife and I always respect elite 3-year-old fillies in the Longines Distaff, but I’ll need to see her beat the best of the best before I get to that type of “elite” classification. Victories in the Grade 2 George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan Stakes May 14 at Pimlico and Grade 3 Iowa Oaks on July 2 at Prairie Meadows are terrific building blocks, however, and Army Wife has my attention.
I was pretty encouraged when Modernist posted a dominant win in the Grade 3 Excelsior Stakes in April at Aqueduct and then finished second in the Pimlico Special Match Series Stakes at Pimlico Preakness weekend. I didn’t expect him to beat Knicks Go in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap July 2 but I did think he could be competitive; however, he faded to sixth and was distanced by the runaway winner. Modernist had been solid and consistent in three previous races this season so maybe we’ll look back in the fall and view this as just a race you draw a line through, but he definitely underperformed at Prairie Meadows and it’s worth watching closely to see if he can regain his top form. Horses obviously have ups and downs but serious Breeders’ Cup candidates don’t usually run that poorly.
2. Super Stock
Since winning the Arkansas Derby at 12.20-1 odds to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve with a career-top 106 Equibase Speed Figure, Super Stock has simply not been very good. Kentucky Derby day creates many stressful variables for a racehorse with the huge field, the massive crowd, the first time racing at 1 ¼ miles, so it wasn’t too difficult to forgive Super Stock’s 16th-place finish and wait to see how he came out of the defeat. His next start was a disappointing fourth in the Texas Derby May 31 at Lone Star Park, but that race was his first start on an “off” track – in that case the main track was sloppy. In the Iowa Derby, Super Stock really had no viable excuse as he finished fourth, beaten by 7 ¼ lengths, as the 2.20-1 second betting choice in a six-horse field. More and more, the Arkansas Derby is looking like the outlier on his past performances. Perhaps he simply ran the race of his life at Oaklawn Park that day and he’ll be hard-pressed to get back to that level.
3. Happy Saver
The Grade 2 Suburban Stakes was Happy Saver’s first race on a wet (sloppy, in this case) track and he tasted defeat for the first time in six races. Some horses simply do not relish “off” tracks with moisture in them and, let’s be clear, Happy Saver did not run a bad race when third and beaten by only 2 ¼ lengths. In fact, he earned a very respectable 110 Equibase Speed Figure for the Suburban third, so on paper it was a pretty fast race. But … when an unbeaten racehorse loses for the first time it always takes a little bit of the shine off and horses react differently. Some come back and train even harder and sometimes a defeat can cause a horse to lose a bit of confidence. It’s hard to predict which will happen with Happy Saver, but I’m still a believer in him as a major player for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He has a win at 1 ¼ miles, elite speed figures, and top connections. Sure, the aura of invincibility might have faded – of course, even the best Thoroughbreds of all time were not perfect on the racetrack – but expect him to regain his top form on a fast (dry) track next time out.