LEXINGTON, Ky., Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Horse of the Year honors, international bragging rights and $31 million in purses and awards are on the line Friday and Saturday as the Breeders' Cup World Championships return to the epicenter of U.S. Thoroughbred racing, Keeneland Race Course.
Fourteen races spread across the two days, culminating in the $6 million Classic, the $4 million Turf and the $2 million Distaff, all sponsored by Swiss watchmaker Longines.
While no fans will be in the stands at the Lexington, Ky., track because of the pandemic precautions, the races drew a powerful group of international raiders that represent Ireland, England, France, Germany and Japan.
Here's a look at the races, starting with a meaningful generational showdown in the Classic and working backward to the first race on "Future Stars" on Friday.
This year's Classic drew a field of 10 with the best of the 3-year-olds taking on the best of their elders.
Trainer Bob Baffert holds a strong hand on both sides of that leger as he saddles this year's Kentucky Derby winner, Authentic, last year's disqualified Kentucky Derby winner, Maximum Security, and 4-year-old Improbable, whose three-race winning streak makes him the 5-2 favorite on Saturday's morning line.
Improbably, the trio drew the outside gates, with Improbable No. 8 with Irad Ortiz Jr. riding, Authentic and jockey John Velazquez starting from No. 9, and Maximum Security and Luis Saez starting from gate 10.
The other 3-year-old looking to land the classic is Tiz the Law, winner of the Florida Derby, Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes before finishing second to Authentic in the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5.
The rest of the older crowd includes Grade I Woodward Stakes winner Global Campaign, Grade I Clark Handicap victor Tom's d' Etat, Grade II Suburban winner Tacitus and Grade II Oaklawn Handicap winner By My Standards.
Reflective of the quality of the race by international standards, Maximum Security and Tacitus finished first and fifth, respectively, in the inaugural running of the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 29 in Riyadh.
More than purse money is at stake Saturday. The winner, barring a big upset, is likely to be Horse of the Year. The Eclipse Award for best 3-year-old probably will go to either Tiz the Law or Authentic, depending on the outcome of this race.
Asked Thursday to assess the race, Tom's d'Etat's trainer, Al Stall Jr., said "It looks like it's going to be a trip race, a luck race. It wouldn't surprise me if [any of] eight of the 10 horses won the race."
Baffert agreed, saying a victory by any of his three starters "wouldn't surprise me at all. I wouldn't be surprised by any of them. ... I could see all three of them hitting the board.
"But they've got to get the trip. The only pressure I feel is that they are three good horses and they should be right there."
And Tiz the Law's venerable trainer, Barclay Tagg, added his thoughts about the fortunes of racing, saying, "I've got confidence in the horse. But I don't have confidence in the luck. A lot can happen in a race."
How tough is this 10-horse field? We'll tell you how tough. United, who finished second last year, falling just a head short of upsetting eventual Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar, is 8-1 on the morning line. And it's not like he's been in a slump, either, as he comes off a win in the Trade II John Henry Turf Classic at Santa Anita.
The rest of the American contingent is at least equally fearsome. Channel Maker has back-to-back wins in the Grade I Saratoga Special and Grade I Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park. And Arklow was last seen winning the Grade III Kentucky Turf Cup at Kentucky Downs.
All of them will have to be on theirs toes, though, to deal with the cross-Atlantic invaders.
Ireland's Coolmore juggernaut has two starters, led by Magical. The 5-year-old Galileo mare is an international superstar with multiple Group 1 wins and finished second to Enable in the 2018 Turf at Churchill Downs.
The "second team" for Coolmore is Mogul, a 3-year-old Galileo colt who was last seen winning the Group 1 Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp.
Tarnawa, a 4-year-old filly by Shamardal, has accounted for the Group 1 Qatar Prix Vermille and Group 1 Prix de l'Opera Longine in her last two starts. John Gosden has two and gives Lord North's reins to his go-to jockey, Frankie Dettori. Lord North won the Grade I Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Channel Maker's trainer, Bill Mott, was eyeing the turf course Thursday, musing, "I am not sure how much the turf is going to firm up. It's not going to be a rock-hard turf course, even if it doesn't rain between now and then."
This looks like a two-horse race with Preakness Stakes winner Swiss Skydiver passing up a run in the Classic to challenge 2018 Distaff winner Monomoy Girl's long winning streak. Fair enough.
Monomoy Girl was sidelined with various maladies after the 2018 victory but has come back stronger than ever to win all three starts this year. The 5-year-old Tapizar mare also won her only previous start at Keeneland, the Grade I Ashland, as a 3-year-old, en route to Kentucky Oaks victory.
Swiss Skydiver, a Daredevil filly, won the Grade II Santa Anita Oaks and the Grade I Alabama at Saratoga before finishing second in the Kentucky Oaks. Her victory in the Preakness tempted owner Peter Callahan and trainer Kenny McPeek to try the Classic.
Monomoy Girl's trainer, Brad Cox, was asked Thursday what he thinks about his 3-year-old rival and replied, "I see what everyone else sees -- a very, very good filly. She's a champion 3-year-old filly for sure."
McPeek saw is slightly differently, saying: "We're excited. She's going to get a real good chance to show how good she is against some talented older fillies and mares for the first time."
Despite all that and despite appearances, this is not necessarily a two-horse race. Harvest Moon has posted four nice wins in a row in California and appears ready to step up another notch. And Valiance and Ollie's Candy were 1-2 in the Grade I Spinster over the Keeneland track Oct. 3.
Fanduel Mile (turf)
Trainer Chad Brown again is well-represented in this event with last year's winner, Uni, who comes off a win in the Grade I First Lady over the course Oct. 3; Digital Age, winner of the Grade I Turf Classic at Churchill Downs in his last outing; and Raging Bull, second in the local Shadwell Turf Mile a month ago.
The field also includes Shadwell Turf Mile winner Ivar, also a Group 1 winner in Argentina. Factor This and Halladay also have been competitive at this level.
As in the Turf, the international contingent for the Mile will be tough to beat. Trainer Andrew Balding fields Kameko, a 3-year-old by top American turf sire Kitten's Joy, who won the Group 2 Shadwell Joel Stakes at Newmarket with a thumping Racing Post Rating of 127. He also won the Group 1 Vertem Futurity last year and the Qipco 2000 Guineas this season and is 6-1 on the morning line.
Aidan O'Brien's string includes Circus Maximus, who was a closing fourth behind Uni last year, and Lope Y Fernandez, who needs a bit of a breakthrough. One Master and Safe Voyage were first and third in the Group 1 Qatar Prix de la Foret on Arc day. Siskin is a multiple group stakes winner.
The condition of the turf course is of great interest to the foreigners and Kameko's rider. Oisin Murphy, had a positive report after giving it a try Thursday.
"We breezed for 4 furlongs on the turf," Murphy said. "The ground was lovely, just kicking the top off, but it's fairly fast underneath. His lead changes were very natural. He never overexerts himself in his work, but he felt really good."
Morning-line favorite Vekoma was scratched after spiking a fever and Yaupon inherited that honor. The 3-year-old Uncle Mo colt is 4-for-4 and his record says jockey Joel Rosario will be playing "catch me if you can" from the No. 10 gate. There might be some who can.
Diamond Oops exits a pace-stalking victory in the Grade II Phoenix over the Keeneland sod in October. C Z Rocket, Frank's Rockette and Firenze Fire all have demonstrated closing ability in big races. Jasper Prince comes from Japan to contest this event, but his record back home does not inspire confidence.
Maker's Mark Filly & Mare Turf
The aforementioned turf maestro Brown has four capable contenders for this 1 3/16-miles race with the best at the moment looking to be the 5-year-old More Than Ready mare Rushing Fall.
Raced rather sparingly, she has won three in a row, lately the Grade I Diana at Saratoga Aug. 28. She has won five of six starts at Keeneland and, in her only previous Breeders' Cup experience, won the Juvenile Fillies Turf at Del Mar in 2017.
Trainer Graham Motion brings Mean Mary, a 4-year-old filly by Scat Daddy, who finished second by a neck in the Diana, ending a three-race winning streak. She's improving.
Any of the four international contenders could challenge those. Frankie Dettori rides Terebellum for trainer John Gosden and Ryan Moore pilots Peaceful for Aidan O'Brien. Audarya has blossomed of late in France but over wet going. If she can translate that, she would figure in this.
Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile
Complexity is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in this race, which is a little tricky as it starts just before the clubhouse turn on the Keeneland main track.
The 4-year-old Maclean's Music colt exits a victory in the Grade II Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park and was second the race before that in the Grade I Forego at Saratoga in the slop.
There are others to consider here, including Art Collector, who missed the Kentucky Derby with a minor injury after five straight wins and now shortens up after running fourth in the Preakness on Oct 3.
Knicks Go returned from a long layoff to win an allowance race at Keeneland by 10 1/4 lengths a month ago and is pointed in the right direction. War of Will won the Grade I Maker's Mark Mile on the grass at Keeneland in July but also won the Preakness last year on the dirt.
Horses who raced over the unique, European-style Kentucky Downs layout down by the Kentucky-Tennessee border seem to do well in their next starts so it's interesting that this 5 1/2-furlongs event includes the first three finishers from the Grade III Turf Sprint at KD back on Sept. 12 -- Imprimis, Front Run the Fed and Bombard.
All are well-regarded by the oddsmaker, too. The favorite, however, is Got Stormy, a Get Stormy mare whose last effort was a victory in the Grade III Buffalo Trace Franklin County over the course and distance of this heat.
Before that, she easily won the Grade III Ladies Sprint -- at Kentucky Downs. There is only one foreign entry -- Glass Slippers -- and it would not be a shocker to see her sneak into the picture at a decent price.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's Breeders' Cup program opens with a race with a solid favorite -- Gamine. The Baffert trainee was unbeaten in four one-turn races, then couldn't quite handle the 1 1/8 miles of the Kentucky Oaks, finishing a fading third but still just 1 1/2 lengths behind the runner-up, Swiss Skydiver.
The Into Mischief filly has been training gangbusters in California for this 7-furlongs dash. They'll have to catch her to beat her and those trying to do that include 2019 Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress and Bell's the One.
Here's a look at Friday's Breeders' Cup races, all for 2-year-olds, again from last to first:
All roads in this 1 1/16-miles test go through Jackie's Warrior, a Maclean's Music colt trained by Steve Asmussen. He is 4-for-4, taking the Grade II Saratoga Special, Grade I Hopeful and Grade I Champagne in succession, all by comfortable margins.
Of course, Dennis's Moment looked unbeatable in this race last year at Santa Anita, then stumbled out of the gate and was never competitive again. His trainer, Dale Romans, is back with Sittin On Go, a Brody's Cause colt, and Romans said that name is just right for him in this race.
"Put him on your ticket. He'll get a piece of it," Romans said Wednesday night.
Juvenile Fillies Turf
This is another wildly competitive race, at least on paper. The morning-line favorite is Aunt Pearl, winner of the Grade II Jessamine Stakes over the course Oct. 7.
But it's hard to look past Campanelle, an Irish-bred miss trained by Ward with Frankie Dettori booked to ride. She is 3-for-3, with those wins including the Group 2 Queen Mary at Royal Ascot and the Group 1 Prix Morny Aug. 23 at Deauville.
Miss Amulet has been ultraconsistent racing in Ireland and England and just missed in her last start, the Group 1 Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket.
This race has the shortest field of the weekend with just seven entries. It's a classic regional showdown with the favorite, Princess Noor, 3-for-3, all in California, and the next two on the morning line, Dayoutoftheoffice and Simply Ravishing, easterners. All three are Grade I winners. But, then, so is Vequist, who is 8-1 on the morning line.
This 1-mile event, another with an overflow field, could not be more wide open. The favorite, Mutsaabeq, is 5-1 on the morning line after winning the Grade II Bourbon over the course Oct. 4 in his first try on the grass.
There are impressive winners from Canada, New York, Ireland, England and France. Some of the Europeans have impressive performance lines from their recent races but beware -- some of those were on very soft or heavy turf and the grass at Keeneland promises to be quite firm. It makes a big difference for many horses.
Juvenile Turf Sprint
Another full field, thanks largely to trainer Wesley Ward, who nominated three colts, two geldings and a filly. Three of them are on the "also eligible" list, though.
Ward does have the favorite, Golden Pal. The Uncle Mo colt finished second in the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot in June, then won the Skidmore Stakes Aug 21 at Keeneland, over this same 5 1/2 furlongs. He is draw in the outside gate but speed should negate that disadvantage.
The three European entries are all at long odds on the morning line but globalists might look at Lipizzaner, from the Coolmore-O'Brien-Moore connections. He's also by Uncle Mo.