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Horse of the Year honors at stake in Breeders' Cup, but in which race?

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Horse of the Year honors at stake in Breeders' Cup, but in which race?
Essential Quality, winner of the Belmont Stakes and a favorite at the Breeders' Cup, heads to the track Thursday after a light workout at Del Mar racetrack in Del Mar, Calif,.  Photo by Mark Abraham/UPI | License Photo

DEL MAR, Calif., Nov. 5 (UPI) -- The drama will build through the day Saturday at the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Del Mar in California, as Horse of the Year honors could be decided in the last few races.

There's a dramatic showdown in the $6 million Classic, where Knicks Go, Essential Quality and potentially others have a shot at the big hardware. If that doesn't work out, Letruska already could have snagged the prize two races earlier with a victory in the $2 million Distaff.

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There are, of course, other scenarios. However it works out, the suspense will be delicious.

Here's a rundown of the Classic, Distaff and the other dirt-track races on the two-day program.

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The $6 million Longines Breeders' Cup Classic

Horse of the Year honors probably are on the line in the Classic as the survivors of the Triple Crown campaign -- Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit -- go at it against the older crowd topped by race favorite Knicks Go.

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Knicks Go, a 5-year-old son of Paynter who run for the Korea Racing Authority, enters the Classic winner of five of his last seven starts, including last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland. The losses were fourth-place finishes in the $20 million Saudi Cup and the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park.

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Essential Quality, a Tapit colt, has won eight of his nine races, losing only when fourth in the Kentucky Derby. He gives supporters palpitations with his habit of doing just enough to win -- scoring by narrow margins in the Grade I Travers, Grade II Jim Dandy, Grade II Blue Grass and last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Essential Quality likely will have to chase down early speed again as Knicks Go is expected to face early pace competition from Pennsylvania Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit, whose Kentucky Derby victory is in dispute after a positive post-race drug test.

The questions are: Who challenges who early and who can keep going under pressure. Art Collector and Max Player also have won recently with early speed. But unless Grade I Pacific Classic winner Tripoli can rebound from a poor effort in the Grade I Awesome Again last month, there's no confirmed closer to take advantage of a suicidal pace duel.

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It's a fascinating race with much riding on the outcome.

The $2 million Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff

If the favorites do falter in the Classic, the Horse of the Year could come from this race, as Letruska enters with six wins and a second from seven previous starts this season.

The 5-year-old Super Saver mare, who started her career in Mexico City, has four Grade I wins during that streak and defeated now-retired 2020 Distaff winner Monomoy Girl in a thrilling renewal of the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park early in the season.

To make her case for the year's top award, Letruska will have to go through a field that includes the winners of this year's and last year's Kentucky Oaks, Malathaat and Shedaresthedevil.

Malathaat has won six of seven starts, three of them Grade I events. Shedaresthedevil is 4-for-5 this season including a 3 1/4-lengths win in the Grade I Clement Hirsch over the Del Mar surface.

She also has the distinction of handing Letruska her only 2021 defeat -- that when she got an early lead in the Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn and held on to win by a head over that rival.

If there's to be an upset, it might be Private Mission, a 3-year-old Bob Baffert trainee, who also has excellent speed and starts from the rail after notching three straight wins, one in the Grade III Torrey Pines at Del Mar. Royal Flag and Clairiere are proven closers. Japan is represented here by Marche Lorraine, a well-bred 5-year-old.

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The $2 million Qatar Racing Breeders' Cup Sprint

Jackie's Warrior will go into the 6-furlongs Sprint as one of the day's best bets and deservedly so after winning eight of 11 lifetime starts. The 3-year-old Maclean's Music colt, trained by Steve Asmussen, won the Grade II Gallant Bob at Parx Racing for fun in his last start.

Before that, he won a dramatic stretch duel in the Grade I H. Alan Jerkens Stakes at Belmont Park, scoring by a neck over Life Is Good, who will be another of Saturday's best bets when he lines up in the Dirt Mile (see below).

The field also includes Dr. Schivel, winner of his five starts including the Grade I Del Mar Futurity, the Grade Bing Crosby and the Grade II Santa Anita Sprint Championship. C Z Rocket and Firenze Fire, second and third in last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint behind the now-retired Whitmore, also return and both remain sharp despite a paucity of recent wins.

Japan sends Matera Sky for another try. The 7-year-old son of Speightstown twice has finished second, narrowly beaten, in rich sprints on the Saudi Cup undercard so he has talent. But he could manage only eighth, beaten 9 1/2 lengths when he contested the Breeder's Cup Sprint at Santa Anita in 2019.

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Aloha West and Following Sea are lightly raced and improving and could sneak into the picture.

The $1 million Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile

Life Is Good might have been this year's Kentucky Derby favorite, but for an untimely injury that kept him out of action from his 8-lengths win in the Grade II San Filipe in March until his aforementioned return against Jackie's Warrior in the Jerkens on Aug. 28.

That effort confirmed the hopes of owners WinStar Farm and China Horse Club that he's something special and he did nothing to dispel that impression while winning the Grade II Kelso by 5 1/2 lengths Sept. 25.

Life Is Good has had it good on the lead in all of his starts, never facing early pressure. He will get that test on Saturday as he has speed to both his inside and outside and stalker Ginobili, the Grade II Pat O'Brien winner, and closer Silver State, the Grade I Met Mile winner, will be waiting to clean up any excessive speed duel. Eight Rings also might fit that description.

Japan, attacking the Breeders' Cup in earnest this year, has two starters in the dirt mile -- Jasper Prince and Pingxiang. Jasper Prince has shown no signs he can do much better than his 14th-place finish last year while Pingxiang, a 4-year-old Speightstown colt, is worth a look while coming off two wins and a layoff.

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The $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint

This is the first Breeders' Cup race on the Saturday card, and it's fortunate it's not part of the popular Pick Six progression. If it were, the presence of Gamine in a field of just five horses likely would make it a "gimme" for the punters.

Gamine, a 4-year-old daughter of Into Mischief, trained by Bob Baffert, is 4-for-4 this year, 9-for-10 lifetime and won this race last year by 6 1/4 lengths.

She would be undefeated if Baffert hadn't sent her far beyond her distance limit in the 1 1/8-miles Kentucky Oaks, where she still held on to finish third, only to lose purse money because of a positive drug test.

Those not wishing to single Gamine on the available Pick 4 or Pick 3 options will turn to Bella Sofia, a 3-year-old Awesome Patriot filly from Rudy Rodriguez' barn. She has four wins, including the Grade I Test Stakes at Saratoga and the Grade II Gallant Bloom at Belmont Park.

Any of the other three would be a major surprise.

And on Friday's program at Del Mar:

The $2 million TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile

Last year, Essential Quality won this race and Saturday he's one of the favorites for the Breeders' Cup Classic and a potential Horse of the Year. Who will emerge from this year's Juvenile?

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These things don't always play out but there's a "made for the movies" showdown between East and West here. Corniche, a Quality Road colt from the Bob Baffert barn, has not been challenged in winning both his starts in California, culminating in a 3 1/2-length score in the Grade I American Pharoah on Oct. 1 at Santa Anita.

Jack Christopher, a Chad Brown-trained Munnings colt, is 2-for-2 in New York with a victory in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park on Oct. 2.

Several of the others chased the favorites home in their last race. Baffert also saddles Grade I Del Mar Futurity winner Pinehurst and improving recent maiden winner Barosa. Double Thunder and American Sanctuary both closed sharply to finish second and fourth in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in their last start.

Here's a long-shot special: Jasper Great. Based in Japan, the colt is a son of Arrogate. He has only one previous start, that a 10-lengths win in a 1 1/8-miles maiden race at Hanshin on Oct. 9.

His dam, Shop Again, has produced at least one good young runner in Power Broker, who won the Grade I Front Runner. And Jasper Great's connections are solid -- owner Kazuo Kato, trainer Hideyuki Mori and jockey Yuga Fukunaga.

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Maybe there was a spare seat on the plane bringing the Japanese contingent. But they might be serious.

The $2 million NetJets Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies

If the Juvenile represents a geographical rivalry, this is a family feud with the main contenders all coming west from the East Coast and Kentucky.

Echo Zulu merits odds-on favorite's status on the morning line after winning all three previous starts. The Gun Runner filly, trained by Steve Asmussen, who also trained Gun Runner, accounted for both of New York's Grade I fillies races, the Spinaway at Saratog and the Frizette at Belmont Park -- both by wide margins.

Hidden Connection is 2-for-2 with a 9 1/4-length win in the Grade III Pocahontas at Churchill Downs in her last start. Juju's Map won the Grade I Alcibiades at Keeneland on Oct. 8.

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