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 or two ago.
In this week’s first edition of Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down for 2021, we take a look at some of the big movers over the past week of racing action as the focus of U.S. Thoroughbred racing shifts from the Triple Crown to the Breeders’ Cup.
In a matter of five weeks, Domestic Spending has gone from lightly raced but promising prospect with huge upside to a top contender in the turf male division and a bona-fide leading candidate for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. In two starts this season, the Kingman gelding tied for first in a dead heat with Colonel Liam in the Grade 1 Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic Stakes May at Churchill Downs and then overwhelmed nine opponents (including Colonel Liam) in a 2 ¾-length romp in the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino Manhattan Stakes on the June 5 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets undercard at Belmont Park. Domestic Spending improved his Equibase Speed Figure from a 112 to a new career-top 119 and his Beyer Speed Figure six points to a new best 106. Four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown has amassed 15 Breeders’ Cup wins in his career with 13 of them coming in grass races, so Domestic Spending is an improving 4-year-old in very capable hands. The only question at this point seems to be the 1 ½-mile distance of the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf, but he’s a closer with terrific finishing speed who also is 2-for-2 at one mile, so there should be a race for him at Del Mar.
2. Silver State
Now 4-for-4 this season, Silver State passed a major class hurdle in the Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap with a one-length score to secure his first Grade 1 victory. Given a respite after coming up a bit short on the 2020 Triple Crown trail, the 4-year-old Hard Spun colt returned from a seven-month layoff October 2020 at Keeneland and has not been defeated in six races since then at distances ranging from seven-eighths of a mile to 1 1/8 miles. I’m not sure he’s a Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic type – 1 ¼ miles might be a bit outside his wheelhouse – but he appears to be an elite contender for the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with the tactical versatility to press, stalk, and close and be effective in his races for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.
For a more in-depth analysis of Essential Quality, check out this week’s Making the Grade blog in which I review his Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets victory June 5 and delve into what the rest of the season might hold for him. In short, the Tapit colt has been consistently fast in his career and never has run a bad race with six wins and a fourth, beaten by a length in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, in seven lifetime starts. Essential Quality won at 1 ½ miles in the Belmont and earned a career-top 109 Beyer Speed Figure, a new best 107 Brisnet speed rating, and equaled his top Equibase Speed Figure with a 109, so the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic is not a concern. Like Silver State (above), he’s versatile enough to have won Grade 1 races while closing, stalking, and pressing the pace. It’s too early to dub a 3-year-old the front-runner for the Classic, but right now Essential Quality looks like a major contender for the $6 million race.
Also-Eligibles: There was a pretty clear top four in my estimation and I easily could have opted with Letruska for one of the top three places, but she is not currently nominated to the Breeders’ Cup and that was the deciding factor. Entering the year, most racing fans viewed the older female division as a stacked group featuring reigning champion Monomoy Girl along with 2020 champion 3-year-old filly Swiss Skydiver and last year’s Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Shedaresthedevil. Enter Letruska! She held off Monomoy Girl by a nose in a gutsy win in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park in April and then rolled to a 2 ¾-length runaway in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes June 5 at Belmont over a group that included the talented Bonny South and Shedaresthedevil. Since December 2020, she has won four of five starts with the only defeat a runner-up finish by a head to Shedaresthedevil back in March, which she avenged last weekend. This 5-year-old Super Saver mare is a graded stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles and a stakes winner at 1 ¼ miles, so I don’t view the 1 1/8-mile Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff distance as an issue. Letruska looks like the real deal to me.
1. Knicks Go
Knicks Go traveled to Saudi Arabia for the $20 million Saudi Cup riding a four-race winning streak that included victories in the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes. The streak came to a halt when he ran fourth, beaten by 8 ½ lengths, in the desert and he did not look much better in his first start back in the U.S. when fourth again as the 4-5 favorite in the Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap on the June 5 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets undercard. Most concerning was that he set a fairly moderate pace – half-mile in :46.31 – in the Met Mile and still was passed by three of his five opponents in the final quarter-mile. Let’s be clear, I’m not writing off Knicks Go as a contender for the 2021 Dirt Mile, but right now he’s definitely not the same horse we saw last fall or this winter. Trainer Brad Cox has time to get him right but he does have some work to do to turn Knicks Go around.
I really liked Rock Your World coming out of his 4 ¼-length win in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby April 3 at Santa Anita Park, where the runner-up that day was eventual Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Medina Spirit. He’s had excuses in his next two starts when a terrible start compromised his chances in the Kentucky Derby and a fast pace took its toll on his in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets June 5, but there is no debating the shine has come off this talented 3-year-old quite a bit since early spring. He earned a 78 Equibase Speed Figure for the Derby and an 84 for the Belmont after a career-best 103 in the Santa Anita Derby. Turf could be an appealing option for the Candy Ride colt who won his first two starts on the grass, but I also believe the Derby was essentially a toss-out race and 1 ½ miles was too far. I don’t believe what we’re currently seeing is the true Rock Your World, but trainer John Sadler obviously needs to return Rock Your World to peak form.
3. Colonel Liam
I try not to overreact to one poor start because I 100% understand that racehorses are not machines ... and Colonel Liam is without question a terrific turf horse. He was 3-for-3 in 2021 and riding a four-race winning streak entering the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino Manhattan Stakes on the June 5 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets undercard. He entered the race off a dead-heat victory with Domestic Spending in the Grade 1 Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic Stakes May at Churchill Downs, but he was simply no match for his familiar rival in the Manhattan. He finished 10 ¾ lengths behind Domestic Spending while fading to eighth of 10 after he was third with a quarter-mile left to race. I did feel like I needed to include him here just because of how highly I had him rated early this year when with two Grade 1 wins and a Grade 2 victory he looked like the best turf horse in the U.S. It’s safe to say he’s been passed by Domestic Spending.