By T. D. Thornton
The Week in Review
We're inside the five-week mark to the Breeders' Cup, and the top five contenders for the GI Classic all won their final graded stakes prep starts over the last two weekends.
This past Saturday, three of those horses wired 1 1/8-miles graded stakes and earned roughly equal Beyer Speed Figures of 107, 107 and 104.
At first blush, those performances look similar on paper, and it's tempting to make the leap to say the Classic will be glutted with early gunners who could hook each other into a sacrificial, multi-horse speed duel.
But closer scrutiny suggests that not all of those Classic aspirants truly need the lead to succeed.
So which of those three produced the most authoritative wire job on Saturday?
The narrow advantage goes to Medina Spirit in the GI Awesome Again S. at Santa Anita Park.
Pace elements of his performance stand out from the other two. Medina Spirit ran the fastest opening quarter mile of those three nine-furlong stakes (:23.34), yet also uncorked the quickest final furlong (:12.62).
In between, however, jockey John Velazquez expertly gave Medina Spirit a breather in the fourth quarter-mile segment. That soft internal fraction of :25.29 was a full 1.33 seconds slower than the :23.96 fourth quarter cranked out by the under-pressure Art Collector in the GI Woodward S. at Belmont Park and 1.03 seconds slower than the :24.26 clocking produced by home-free Knicks Go in the GIII Lukas Classic S. at Churchill Downs.
Back in February, when the overachieving (based on auction prices of $1,000 at OBSWIN and $35,000 at OBSOPN) Medina Spirit was still only about fourth-best on trainer Bob Baffert's GI Kentucky Derby depth chart, Baffert expressed a belief that this colt was more effective pressing the pace rather than setting it.
That theory got abandoned after Medina Spirit seized the lead when no one else was keen to take up the early running in the Derby. His withstood several mid-race attacks then held off a cavalry charge of legit closers in the stretch to win over 10 furlongs.
Although Medina Spirit looked like a spent horse when running a no-impact third on the lead in the GI Preakness S., he rebounded capably to wire the Aug. 29 Shared Belief S. at Del Mar, then upped the ante with a career-best 107 Beyer in the Awesome Again S. while facing older horses for the first time.
Heading into the Classic, Medina Spirit has now won at 1 1/4 miles, over the Breeders' Cup surface (Del Mar), and against his elders. In sports wagering, there is a maxim about not betting against overachievers who keep winning “must” or “elimination” games. Plucky, hard-trying Medina Spirit is the pari-mutuel equivalent.
One irony that is unlikely to play out in the Classic is a rematch with 'TDN Rising Star' Life Is Good, the Into Mischief colt who is the only rival to have beaten Medina Spirit twice this year. That former Baffert trainee was the early Derby favorite until he got sidelined in March by ankle chip surgery. Now trained by Todd Pletcher, Life Is Good is instead aiming for the GI Dirt Mile, chiefly because he's never raced beyond 1 1/16 miles.
Work of 'Art'
Art Collector wasn't a major presence in the Classic picture prior to his 107-Beyer score on Saturday. Yet he's now riding a three-race win streak since being turned over to trainer Bill Mott. One of those wins was in an ungraded stakes at Saratoga and another was in the GII Charles Town Classic. He wasn't even favored for his gate-to-wire Woodward S. win.
But the professionalism Art Collector displayed under sustained pressure marks him as a sneaky-good Breeders' Cup contender who is just now rounding back into the form he displayed last year before a minor foot injury caused him to miss the pandemic-delayed Derby in September.
For the first time since 2005, the Woodward was run at Belmont instead of Saratoga, which meant that it was once again contested around a one-turn configuration. Art Collector never had to swat back multiple attacks on Saturday. But that's largely because he continuously held the all-out competition at bay with a workmanlike, grind-it-out win on the front end.
Art Collector's Woodward rates a distinct edge in terms of field quality among Saturday's preps for the Classic. While Medina Spirit's next closest competitor was a 54-1 shot and Knicks Go was 1-10 in the betting against five softies who are unlikely for the Breeders' Cup, Art Collector was pulsing away from the likes of odds-on Maxfield (Street Sense) and several other graded stakes stalwarts.
The Woodward win was the fifth in Mott's career, the most ever for a trainer in that stakes. The victory also gave Art Collector the unique distinction of having won three straight nine-furlong stakes under three different track configurations: two turns (Saratoga), three turns (Charles Town), and one turn (Belmont).
Art Collector has crossed the finish wire first nine times (one DQ), and in seven of them he has either led or pressed in second for most of the trip. But his GII Blue Grass S. win from last July provides a prime example of how this colt is fully capable of executing stalking tactics: He applied pressure from third behind dueling leaders, then ratcheted up the tempo to wrest control through a length-of-stretch slugfest.
In an August 2020 pre-Derby analysis I wrote that “Art Collector looms like a quietly intimidating bruiser, speaking softly while carrying a big kick.”
Some 13 months later, I'll stick with that assessment heading into the Classic.
Fast, but Can He Last?
Knicks Go (104 Beyer) had the easiest tour around the track on Saturday among the three Classic contenders. He utterly toyed with overmatched competition, allowing them to creep closer before edging away at several points in a largely even-paced race.
His final eighth (while wrapped up and cruising home solo through the stretch) was a respectable :12.69, only .07 seconds slower than the last-furlong clocking turned in by Medina Spirit.
And Knick's Go's final time of 1:47.85 was only .57 seconds off Victory Gallop's 22-year-old track record.
Beyond those numbers, Knicks Go carries himself with a confident swagger that doesn't immediately register when watching Medina Spirit or Art Collector.
But of those three, it is also evident that Knicks Go is the horse whose success is most closely tied to attaining the top spot at the head of affairs.
Knicks Go has nine lifetime wins. Eight of them sport “all ones” running lines indicating he was on the lead at every point of call. The only (very minor) deviation from that pattern was in Knicks Go's career debut, when he was second at the start, then rushed up to grab the lead.
It was one year ago—Oct. 4, 2020, to be precise—that Knicks Go wired an $80,000 optional claimer/3x allowance at Keeneland by 10 1/4 lengths while making just his second start for trainer Brad Cox. It was then on to the Dirt Mile, which seemed a touch ambitious considering the Breeders' Cup would only be the gray's third start off an extended layoff.
Knicks Go won the Dirt Mile with unexpected aplomb and then the GI Pegasus World Cup by open lengths (both 108 Beyers) before faltering in a pair of one-turn 1 1/8 mile races, the $20-million Saudi Cup and the GI Metropolitan H. This summer he regrouped with easy two-turn scores in the GIII Cornhusker H. at Prairie Meadows and GI Whitney S. at Saratoga.
But Knicks Go's Beyer numbers have tailed off (113, 111, 104 last three races) even as his winning ways have resumed. That's not an enviable pattern for a horse who is locked into a set style of running and has never before attempted 10 furlongs, the distance of the Classic.