The Grade 1 Woodward at Belmont Park and the Grade 1 Awesome Again at Santa Anita were both run on Saturday, October 2. Both were won by front-running stars who defeated stellar fields of graded winners, and a rematch looms in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar. But which of the prep races is more likely to produce the winner of the 10-furlong race?
In the Woodward, Art Collector rated kindly just in front of longshot Mo Gotcha. He loped through fractions of :24.02 and :47.78, not really being asked by jockey Luis Saez until the quarter pole. Favored Maxfield loomed with Dr. Post outside, with $2.9 million earner Code of Honor on the fence, but Art Collector simply spurted away, shunning their advances to win by a length and a half in 1:49.22.
Art Collector is experiencing a bit of a career revival after being one of the best horses of 2020 early in the season. He won four in a row before finishing fourth in the Preakness Stakes (G1) and eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). Now he has won three consecutive races for new trainer Bill Mott, who took over from Tom Drury, Jr. this summer.
But what of the Awesome Again? It was won by the game, consistent, and unfortunately star-crossed Medina Spirit, who is best known as the horse to win the 2021 Kentucky Derby but test positive afterwards—a story yet to see a conclusion. Medina Spirit also went to the lead, running ahead of stablemate Azul Coast and marathon specialist Tizamagician in :23.34 and :47.72. He was never really threatened, pulling away by five lengths under John Velazquez in 1:49.67. Finishing second, 54-1 shot Stileto Boy with Express Train in third and Pacific Classic hero Tripoli in fourth.
Historically, the Awesome Again and the Woodward have both produced Classic winners from their own winner’s circle. Since 2000, the Woodward/Classic double has been done by Ghostzapper (2004), Saint Liam (2005), and Gun Runner (2017), while the Awesome Again double was accomplished by Tiznow (2000), Pleasantly Perfect (2003), and Accelerate (2018). Both Art Collector and Medina Spirit will likely try to flash speed, but they are unlikely to get to the lead early in the Breeders Cup. That honor should go to Knicks Go.
Long considered suspect at 1 ¼ miles, Knicks Go might just be in luck as he tackles the distance in the Classic for the first time. He has been on the lead at every point over call since February, 2019, save for the last when he ran fourth in February’s Saudi Cup and then in the Met Mile as the favorite in June. In his Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile victory of 2020, Knicks Go took the lead from the outset and kept going, then ran the same race again in the Pegasus World Cup two months later. He is in fine form, winning the Cornhusker by 10 ¼ lengths in July, then the Grade 1 Whitney (over Maxfield) by 4 ½ lengths in August.
In the October 2 Lukas Classic (G3) at Churchill Downs, Knicks Go was facing a softer field than the Woodward or Awesome Again, but not without challengers like Tacitus and Independence Hall in the field. Knicks Go made a mockery of them, cruising to the line in 1:47.85. It was the third Breeders’ Cup Classic prep at nine furlongs on the day.
Perhaps the biggest winner of the weekend was Essential Quality, who was tucked safely in his stall away from the action. In a scenario where Knicks Go gets to the lead at Del Mar, and Medina Spirit, Art Collector, and the quick Pennsylvania Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie all try to push the pace, it makes sense that even on a speed favoring track like Del Mar that they may get tired, and Essential Quality can swoop in and pick up the pieces. The leader of the three-year-old division, Essential Quality, has won three significant races in a row and is eight for nine lifetime, including last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). He has the speed to sit second early and the tractability to drop back through the field and make a run.
Another horse that will benefit from all the pace pressure is the often-forgotten Max Player, who previously won the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. He looked strong working at Santa Anita the morning after the Awesome Again, and is dappled and happy in the California air. A pace meltdown would benefit him as well.
But if you simply want to compare the chances of Art Collector and Medina Spirit, the latter gets the nod. Medina Spirit has never been off the board (Kentucky Derby result still pending), has a win over ten furlongs, and a win over the Del Mar surface. He can run out of the stall where he lived all summer, and Art Collector will lose pilot Saez to Essential Quality. Whether or not the Kentucky Derby result stands, Medina Spirit has a gutty kind of courage that he has displayed over and over, has shown he won’t back down from a fight, and has proven he can kick away from elders.
Regardless, as the field stands it will be a Breeders’ Cup Classic to remember. Just about all of them are!