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Classic not yet a two-horse race

By Ron Flatter  ( 


Pity the bettor who believes the Breeders’ Cup Classic, still more than two months away, has boiled down to a two-horse race. Especially with both horses coming from the same barn.


It is easy to get caught up in Essential Quality and Knicks Go. They are strikingly beautiful equine visions who will grace stallion registers after their racing days are over. Their resumes have been given that extra shine that comes from being the biggest winners this summer at Saratoga.


One global bookmaker validated their excellence weeks ago, making them the shortest-priced horses in their futures for the $6 million championship finale Nov. 6 at Del Mar. With his Travers victory Saturday at Saratoga, Essential Quality shortened to 4-1. Without the benefit of such a recent impression, Knicks Go continues to dine out on his 4½-length Whitney triumph nearly a month ago. He is 5-1.


Who wouldn’t get caught up in Essential Quality? Last weekend he did to Midnight Bourbon what he already had done to Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont Stakes. He broke their hearts. He is like that quiet, barrel-chested dude in the back of a chaotic room who calmly says, “I got this,” then parts the sea of confusion with a Vince McMahon strut.


Essential Quality demonstrated Saturday that he is no longer the precocious colt who could not overcome a soft pace in the Kentucky Derby. Turning into the stretch at Saratoga, the Travers was going to be the Derby all over again. Rather than Medina Spirit getting loose on an easy lead, it was Midnight Bourbon. But instead of accepting the merry-go-round finish at Churchill Downs as he did in his only loss, Essential Quality coolly demonstrated the confidence he gained from overcoming Hot Rod Charlie’s throwdown nearly three months ago.


In the case of Knicks Go, it is easy to say the Whitney was not very challenging, with only four others in the field. But his 111 Beyer Speed Figure belies that. By leading at every call, he consolidated his own early fractions, which were tough to chase for Maxfield, Silver State, Swiss Skydiver and By My Standards. Re-examine those names. Those were not space fillers in the gate. That small field was good.


The downside of betting Knicks Go to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic is easy. He might not race in it. In 22 starts he has never been asked to go 1¼ miles. Getting a 5-year-old to do that for the first time in a $6 million race is, as they say in Australia, a big ask. So is having trainer Brad Cox decide to put him in the same race as Essential Quality.


Cox has not hit the brakes on any talk of Knicks Go being entered in America’s richest race. His plans to send the 5-year-old son of Tapit into the Oct. 2 Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs have always been uttered in the context of being a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.


Is it so far-fetched to think Cox would send Knicks Go back to try to repeat in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile? Since the Korea Racing Authority moved him out of Ben Colebrook’s barn two winters ago, Knicks Go is 6-for-6 going two turns. That is precisely how the Dirt Mile was run last year at Keeneland — and how it will be run this year at Del Mar.


Hearing that Knicks Go is more likely bound for the Classic, the global bookmaker that has him as the second choice took him down from its Dirt Mile futures. Still, an owner and a trainer have the right to change their minds. That next start at Louisville might tell them which way to go.


Essential Quality’s case is more complicated by the unknown. Excelling against the foal crop of 2018, he has never faced older horses. Cox said Sunday “there’s no pressure to make a decision right now” about whether to give the front-runner for 3-year-old champion male one more race before Del Mar. As he put it, “We’ll just let the dust settle.”


The dust should be tamped down in the next week or two. Cox’s potential choices for Essential Quality include three 1⅛-mile Grade 1s: the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 25 at Parx, the Woodward on Oct. 2 at Belmont Park and the Awesome Again on Oct. 2 at Santa Anita. Either of the last two would be in open company against older horses.


It is true that four of the last seven runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic have been won by 3-year-olds, and they were trained by Bob Baffert. American Pharoah (2015) and Arrogate (2016) raced in the Travers and trained up to the Classic. Bayern (2014) and Authentic (2020) prepped five or six weeks beforehand. None raced against older horses before the Breeders’ Cup.


Maybe Essential Quality really is the best horse out there, but he is not the only one. Happy Saver (7-1) and Mystic Guide (7-1) have Grade 1 wins at 1¼ miles in open company, and Max Player (14-1) beat both at that distance July 3 in the Grade 2 Suburban.


More than nine weeks remain until the Breeders’ Cup Classic. To think Essential Quality or Knicks Go are that much better a play now at 4-1 and 5-1 is to suggest the odds are certain to be only half as good at post time Nov. 6.


Sure, waiting has its price. But in this case, the bet here is patience will carry a reward.


In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at Closing weekend in New York and California is the focus this week. Andy Serling and Tom Amoss of “Saratoga Live” review the summer season and look ahead to the big races during Labor Day weekend. Duane Colucci of the Rampart Sportsbook will provide weekend handicapping. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.


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