A year that has been eventful, to put it mildly, will reach its championship crescendo Nov. 6 with a race stuffed with many of the major story lines in 2021.
As exciting as the 38th running of the $6 million Longines Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar figures to be with its compelling mix of top-quality speedsters and closers, it will also resurrect the highs and lows of the past 10 months in a neat two-minute bundle.
Remember the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve? And what happened a week later?
Well, trainer Bob Baffert and Zedan Racing Stables' Medina Spirit teamed to capture the May 1 Run for the Roses, only to have two post-race tests reveal a banned substance in the 3-year-old's system. Though the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has yet to deliver a final decision on the matter, the uproar led to Baffert receiving a suspension from Churchill Downs and the New York Racing Association attempting to ban him, only to have a federal judge overturn NYRA's suspension and force the organization to hold a disciplinary hearing in January.
With no immediate end to the legal wrangling in sight, Baffert and Medina Spirit will return to one of the sport's biggest stages under enhanced medical and electronic scrutiny and face the best horses in training in a race that may prove to be revealing, forgettable, or a source of vindication for them.
Third in the Preakness Stakes, Medina Spirit returned from a 3 1/2-month freshening and won the Shared Belief Stakes and Awesome Again Stakes in his last two starts. In the Awesome Again, Medina Spirit followed the same script as the Kentucky Derby, taking the lead at the start and rolling to a convincing five-length win over older horses.
On Monday afternoon at Del Mar, Medina Spirit was instilled as the 4-1 co-third morning-line betting choice in the Longines Classic, drawing post position 8.
"I'm happy for (owner Amr Zedan) and what we have had to deal with," Baffert said after the Oct. 2 Awesome Again at Santa Anita Park. "We stayed focused on the horses. It's an emotional win for us. This horse keeps getting better and better."
Then there's trainer Brad Cox, last year's Eclipse Award winner. Throughout the year, two of the year's top runners, Godolphin's homebred Essential Quality (Post 4, odds of 3-1) and the Korea Racing Authority's Knicks Go (Post 5, 5-2), resided in his barn and now after highly successful campaigns in which they have combined for eight Grade 1 wins they will meet for the first time with each taking aim at Horse of the Year honors in the 1 1/4-mile Classic.
"We have both of them where we want them," Cox said. "At this point in the year there's not a whole lot we have to do with them in the mornings. Both horses are carrying incredible flesh. They look amazing. Essential Quality has expanded and gotten bigger since his last race. He's thriving now, enjoying the cool weather. He seems to be on his toes."
Oh, and how about trainer Steve Asmussen? He was the talk of the sport in August at Saratoga Race Course when he won five Grade 1 stakes at the Spa and posted his 9,446th victory to become North America's all-time leader in wins.
On Saturday, he'll send out George Hall and SportBLX's Thoroughbreds' Max Player (Post 9, 8-1), who accounted for one of those Grade 1 wins at the Spa by taking the Jockey Club Gold Cup and should be ideally suited by the Longines Classic’s 1 ¼-miles.
A son of Honor Code, Max Player is exiting back-to-back wins at that distance in the Suburban Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
And let's not forget the controversy over the TVG.com Haskell Stakes. Contested with jockeys allowed to use their crop only for safety measures, Hot Rod Charlie (Post 3, 4-1) and jockey Flavien Prat drifted in while making a winning move in the stretch, clipping heels with Midnight Bourbon and causing that rival to stumble and lose his rider. After the son of Oxbow was disqualified from first to last, the 3-year-old owned in part by five young college buddies who form Boat Racing bounced back by winning the Pennsylvania Derby for trainer Doug O'Neill and will be looking for smooth sailing once again in his debut against older horses.
"I love the continuity of having Flavien Prat back on him and having the versatility of being able to come from off it if the pace is too hot, and be able to make the lead if no one goes, so we have options," O'Neill said about a colt who was third in the Kentucky Derby and second to Essential Quality in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.
And those are just the highlights of a race that has enough drama to fill a month's worth of original shows for Netflix while also producing a mesmerizing showdown among 10 of the sport's biggest stars.
The most interesting part of the Classic involves the pace. It should be wicked fast with 2020 Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Knicks Go sprinting out for the lead and Medina Spirit, Woodward Stakes winner Art Collector (Post 6, 8-1), Hot Rod Charlie, Max Player, and Stilleto Boy (Post 7, 30-1) in close pursuit.
"We're going to the lead with Knicks Go," Cox said about the 5-year-old son of Paynter who has earned $5.5 million and is destined to become a stallion at Taylor Made Stallions. "If anyone wants to run with him, that's their choice. When he clears off, those have been his best races. The mile-and-a-quarter can be a bit of a question mark but it certainly looks like he should handle it from his gallop-outs."
Knicks Go, who will be racing beyond 1 1/8 miles for the first time, posted front-running victories in the Whitney Stakes and Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes, and should wind up as Horse of the Year if he prevails Saturday.
The same could be said of Essential Quality. The son of Tapit won the Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy Stakes, and Runhappy Travers Stakes in his last three starts and would also become the Horse of the Year favorite by giving Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum his first Classic victory under the Godolphin banner. His lone loss was a fourth behind Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby.
"The pace could help Essential Quality," Cox said. "He has the ability to adapt to the pace and that should play into his hands Saturday."
The 2-year-old champion male of 2020 when he won the TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, Essential Quality has won eight of nine career starts with earnings of $4.2 million heading into his final start before entering stud at Godolphin’s Jonabell farm in Lexington, Ky.