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Breeders' Cup brings array of surprises, upsets amid Knicks Go's dominance

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
1/6
Breeders' Cup brings array of surprises, upsets amid Knicks Go's dominance
Ce Ce, ridden by Victor Espinoza (R) wins the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at the Breeders' Cup Championships at Del Mar racetrack in Del Mar, Calif., on Saturday. Photo by Mark Abraham/UPI | License Photo

DEL MAR, Calif., Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Knicks Go capped a truly international Breeders' Cup World Championships weekend Saturday at Del Mar with a romping, gate-to-wire victory in the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic, undoubtedly locking up Horse of the Year honors.

In the world-class racing on the undercard, Japan scored its first Breeders' Cup win, thanks to Loves Only You, and then won another two races later with 45-long shot Marche Lorraine. Sheik Mohammed's Dubai-based Godolphin juggernaut won two events.

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Life Is Good looked like a world-beater for next year's top international events with a sparkling win in the Dirt Mile. Trainer Wesley Ward, a frequent competitor in England and France, continued to dominate the short turf events and already is plotting 2022 trans-Atlantic raids.

There also were massive upsets on the program as Gamine and Jackie's Warrior were defeated in the dirt sprint events at very short odds and Lastruska's chances for Horse of the Year honors went down the drain in a pace duel in the Distaff.

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Here's how Breeders' Cup Saturday played out in front of 26,553 fans at the Sand Diego-area track opened in 1937 by Bing Crosby and his Hollywood friends, "Where the Turf Meets the Surf."

The Classic

The $6 million Grade I Longines Breeders' Cup Classic was, on paper, a classic showdown between Knicks Go and the best of this year's American 3-year-olds. But when it got off the paper and onto the track, it was no contest.

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Knicks Go and jockey Joel Rosario led early, led late and won by 2 3/4 lengths, undoubtedly sewing up Horse of the Year honors.

The stunning gray was trailed across the finish line by Medina Spirit, whose Kentucky Derby victory remains under review because of a positive drug test, Essential Quality, whose only previous loss was a fourth-place finish in the Derby; Hot Rod Charlie, third in the Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes, and long shot Stilleto Boy -- 3-year-olds all.

The other three starters, all 4-year-olds, were the trailing edge at the end of the 1 1/4 miles, negotiated in 1:59.47 by Knicks Go.

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The race was over when no rival elected to challenge Knicks Go on the lead.

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"He's very quick," Rosario said. "Man, he was just speeding, speeding, very controlled, enjoying what he was doing out there."

Trainer Brad Cox said he had no explanation why there was no pace pressure, especially on a day when early leaders faded when challenged in several other races.

"I didn't really know what the tactics from the other trainers and jockeys would be," he said. "Maybe they thought they'd jeopardize their own chances. Speed is dangerous."

Knicks Go took an unusual path to the Classic after winning last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland. He started with a win in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, then finished fourth in both the $20 million Saudi Cup and the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park.

Cox next sent him to Iowa for the Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Stakes, which he won with ease. The goal, the trainer said, was to "maybe get his confidence back and see where we were with him."

He then reeled off wins in the Grade I Whitney at Saratoga and the Grade III Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs before heading for the surf and turf.

Knicks Go, owned by the Korea Racing Authority, is slated to start his stud career at Taylor Made Stallions in Nicholasville, Kentucky, in the springtime.

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His name does not refer to the New York NBA team but, rather, to a proprietary KRA computer program to manage matings. So far, so good.

The Distaff

Other than the Classic, if there were a theme in Saturday's Breeders' Cup results, it was simply: "Speed Kills." That happened in spades in the $2 million Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff as Private Mission and odds-on favorite Letruska went to the front and raced through suicidal fractions -- and then faded badly through the final furlongs to finish last and next to last, respectively.

The beneficiary this time was Japan's Marche Lorraine, an Orfevre mare who came from well off that hot pace to lead in the stretch and held off Dunbar Road in the final strides by a head. Kentucky Oaks winner Malathaat was third.

The victory was the second on the day for Japan after the Filly and Mare Turf, second for breeder Northern Farm and second for trainer Yoshito Yahagi.

Oisin Murphy, who has extensive experience with Japanese racing, rode Marche Lorraine. Before those two wins, Japanese runners had been shut out in 13 previous Breeders' Cup starts.

"I didn't know a lot about her, obviously," Murphy said. "I do ride a lot in Japan and I just decided to ignore her [45-1] odds and give her a chance. ... Maybe I moved too early, but I had to make a decision or I would have had to go very wide."

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The victory over multiple American Grade I winners in the 1 1/8-mile dirt race was doubly impressive as dirt racing is decidedly secondary to turf competition in Japan.

Marche Lorraine, who switched to dirt racing late in 2020, had compiled a record of five wins from eight starts on the surface while racing on the regional circuit.

Letruska came into the race with a record of six wins from seven starts this year and would have been in the mix for Horse of the Year honors with another victory.

That chance evaporated as she was pushed through early fractions of 21.84 and 44.97 seconds during the first half mile -- an unsustainable pace. She finished 10th, beating only Private Mission.

The Turf

Yibir came with one big run to take the $4 million Grade I Longines Breeders' Cup Turf over Broome in a 1-2 finish for the world's top global operations -- Dubai's Godolphin and Ireland's Coolmore.

The Turf always looked to be a wide-open affair with European runners seemingly dominant against their American competition. And so it played out as Yibir, a 3-year-old Dubai gelding based in England with trainer Charlie Appleby, got the big prize.

Broome, a 5-year-old son of Australia trained in Ireland by Aidan O'Brien, looked like a winner until the final yards, but settled for second, 1/2 length back.

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Teona, a 3-year-old Sea the Stars filly from England, was third, followed by another of O'Brien's string, Japan, and, in the best showing for American runners, Channel Maker. Channel Maker was an "also eligible" who drew into the race only because of two scratches.

Jockey William Buick had Yibir next-last in the big field entering the stretch turn. Taking the widest route of all, he starting passing horses and had dead aim on Broome in the final furlong. He got there in time to win by 1/2 length.

Buick said Yibir was rank early but settled going down the backstretch the second time. "Halfway around the home turn, I could see Broome had gone. But I knew I could catch him. After the finish, I couldn't pull him up," he said of his gelding.

Appleby said that type of behavior "is just the nature of the beast with this horse. It's one of the reasons he's gelded. But to still have that finish in him after all of that, it shows what kind of engine he's got."

The Filly & Mare Turf

Loves Only You, with a late burst of speed between rivals, got Japan on the Breeders' Cup board with a victory in the $2 million Maker's Mark Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

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With Yuga Kawada riding, the daughter of the late Japanese sire Deep Impact raced in contact with the leaders into the third turn of the 1 3/8-miles trip on the firm Del Mar turf.

She still was behind horses into the straight but when a hole opened, the veteran international traveler went through willingly and won by 1 1/2 lengths over My Sister Nat. War Like Goddess was third.

Loves Only You, out of the Storm Cat mare Loves Only Me, has come into her own as a 5-year-old.

She won the Grade 2 Kyoto Kinen in February to get the year going, finished third behind Mishriff and Chrono Genesis in a Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic for the ages in March and then won the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup in Hong Kong in April.

After a break, she was a close second behind the talented white filly Sodashi in the Grade 2 Sapporo Kinen on Aug. 22.

Japan sent a large contingent to this year's Breeders' Cup despite going winless in previous visits. Trainer Yoshito Yahagi said that represented a challenge "and that's why it's so good to get the victory here. ... We made history so that makes all of Japanese racing open to the Breeders' Cup."

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Yahagi said Loves Only You has been invited to the Group1 Longines Hong Kong Cup in December and will stay at Del Mar to prepare for that race.

The Mile (turf)

Space Blues chased down pacesetting longshot Smooth Like Strait in the final furlong to win the $2 million FanDuel Breeders' Cup Mile by 1/2 length -- the second of three victories on turf for Godolphin and trainer Appleby during the two-day meeting.

It also was the second straight day a Godolphin-Appleby runner was scratched after acting up at the gate. This time it was Master of the Seas jogging away from the gate uninjured, but denied a run.

Space Blues' jockey, William Buick, said the episode didn't affect his horse, who was two stalls out from Master of the Seas. "If anything, it woke him up a little bit," Buick said.

Space Blues, a 5-year-old homebred son of Dubawi, raced close to the pace made by a loose-on-the-lead Smooth Like Strait. Buick asked him to pick things up early in the run down the stretch and the multiple Group 1 winner responded, easing smoothly to the front in the final sixteenth. He finished the 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.01.

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Space Blues, who now heads to retirement, has been a warrior for Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin operation, winning 11 of 19 starts. This year's victories include the Group 1 Prix de la Foret at Longchamp, the rich STC 1351 Turf Sprint Cup in Saudi Arabia and the Group 2 City of York in England.

"He has been a great servant to us all and I'm grateful he can go to retirement on a world stage," Appleby said.

The Sprint

The "Speed Kills" theme also was at work to the detriment of the heavy favorite in the $2 million Grade I Qatar Racing Breeders' Cup Sprint, and much to the benefit of 11-1 long shot Aloha West. Jackie's Warrior, winner of three straight graded stakes, led for the first 2/3 of the 6-furlongs dash but was pressured all the way by Special Reserve.

When the challenge came, Jackie's Warrior folded and it appeared Dr. Schivel would be the beneficiary, quickly grabbing a daylight lead.

Then Aloha West, a relatively unheralded 4-year-old Hard Spun colt, came flying down the middle of the track and caught Dr. Schivel in the final strides to win by a nose. Following Sea was third.

Aloha West finished in 1:08.49 with Jose Ortiz riding for trainer Wayne Catalano. Jackie's Warrior wilted to finish sixth.

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The victory came in just the colt's third stakes engagement and second graded affair. In his first such, he finished second to Special Reserve in the Grade II Phoenix at Keeneland on Oct. 8.

"He'd never won a stakes race, so what he did today is just magical," said Aron Wellman, founder of the owner, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners.

Ortiz said he knew the task of running down Jackie's Warrior was a daunting one, especially as, he said, "The track always plays to speed here. I was very concerned."

The Filly & Mare Sprint

The story was much the same in the $1 million Grade I Filly & Mare Sprint as Ce Ce emerged from behind a hot speed duel involving the favorites to post an upset win.

Last year's winner, Gamine, sent off at odds of 2-5, hooked up with Bella Sofia and those fillies, both only once defeated, went at it hammer and tongs down the backstretch and around the turn.

That played right into the hands of Ce Ce's rider, Victor Espinoza, who cruised by that pair in the stretch to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

"It was almost too good to be true," winning trainer Michael McCarthy said.

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Ce Ce, a 5-year-old Elusive Quality mare, finished 7 furlongs in a snappy 1:21.00. Long shot Edgeway was up for second with Gamine third and Bella Sofia fourth. Ce Ce got her fourth win from six starts this year. She finished fifth in the 2020 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Keeneland, going 1 1/8 miles.

The Turf Sprint

It looked like Golden Pal got a head start in the $1 million Grade I Turf Sprint. He didn't but after the first few jumps, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. had the 3-year-old Uncle Mo colt out to a big lead that he never relinquished.

Unchallenged in the 5-furlongs heat, he stormed home first, 1 1/4 lengths in front of Lieutenant Dan. Charmaine's Mia was third.

Emaraty Anna, a Group 1-winning English invader, was fourth -- best among the European raiders. Last year's winner, Glass Slippers, returned from Ireland but could muster only an eighth-place finish.

Golden Pal, trained by Wesley Ward, finished in 54.75 seconds, equaling the course record.

His four previous wins included last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint and two seconds include the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes at last year's Royal Ascot. Ward indicated he wouldn't mind taking the Coolmore-owned colt back to the Royal meeting for the 2022 King's Stand Stakes.

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"He's so sound right now and lightly raced," the trainer said. "The stallion value would be so enhanced if he won over there."

M.V. Magnier, representing the Coolmore "lads," said Ward shouldn't have a tough time selling that plan. "I've never seen a horse go 5 [furlongs] in 54 seconds," he said.

The Dirt Mile

Life Is Good might well have been this year's Kentucky Derby favorite but for an untimely injury that sidelined him from March until August. He certified his credentials and his comeback with a dramatic tour de force victory in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile, leading all the way.

The Into Mischief colt shook off a challenge from Ginobili at the top of the stretch and kicked away to win by 5 3/4 lengths in 1:34.12. Restrained Vengeance was third.

Life Is Good now has five wins from six lifetime starts. His only loss came to Jackie's Warrior in his comeback race at Saratoga Aug. 28 and, in that, he lost to the Sprint Division kingpin by just a neck after a stretch-long duel going 7 furlongs in the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes.

The colt's co-owners, WinStar Farm and China Horse Club, moved him from Bob Baffert's care to Todd Pletcher after Baffert was suspended by Churchill Downs and Breeders' Cup opened an inquiry into whether he would be allowed to run in this event.

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WinStar owner Kenny Troutt said that was not a reflection on Baffert, but a guarantee that Life Is Good would be clear to resume his career.

"It was a little challenging and a hard thing to do," Troutt said.

WinStar's Elliott Walden said he hopes to keep Life Is Good in training and said all options, including the 2022 Saudi Cup and Dubai World Cup, would be on the table.

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