Breeders' Cup Roundup: July 5, 2021

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

July 5th, 2021

Independence Day weekend produced a trio of surprising results in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, shaking up the racing landscape four months out from the Nov. 5-6 Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar.

Let’s look back on the most important developments from racing’s Fourth of July celebration:

Max Player joins the game with Suburban upset

The 1 1/4-mile Suburban S. (G2) at Belmont Park was billed as a rematch between the undefeated Happy Saver and recent Dubai World Cup (G1) hero Mystic Guide, the top two finishers from the 2020 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1).

But in the end, it was Max Player who sprung a surprise victory, securing a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). The son of Honor Code has long shown talent; as a sophomore last season, he won the Withers S. (G3) and placed third in both the Belmont S. (G1) and Travers S. (G1).

However, Max Player elevated his game to a new level in the Suburban. Rebounding from off-the-board efforts in the Saudi Cup and Pimlico Special S. (G3), Max Player displayed improved tactical speed, settling in second place through splits of :23.72, :47.67, and 1:11.60.

Rounding the final turn, Max Player appeared beaten when Mystic Guide slipped through an opening along the rail to take command. But through the final quarter-mile, Max Player battled back tenaciously, surging to catch Mystic Guide by a neck in 2:01.95.

According to Trakus, Max Player ran 37 feet (4.625 lengths) farther than the ground-saving Mystic Guide, so his victory was arguably more decisive than it first appears. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen appears to have gotten Max Player back on track, with the Breeders’ Cup Classic now looming as a viable long-term target for the improving four-year-old.

Ce Ce, Mind Control sprint to Breeders’ Cup berths

In 2020, Ce Ce was an accomplished route runner, winning the Beholder Mile (G1) and Apple Blossom H. (G1) during a productive campaign. But if her decisive victory in Saturday’s Princess Rooney S. (G2) at Gulfstream Park is any indication, the Michael McCarthy trainee is reconfiguring herself as an elite sprinter.

Indeed, Ce Ce left no doubt about her superiority in the seven-furlong dash, which awarded a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1). After settling a couple lengths behind fractions of :22.48 and :44.90, Ce Ce pounced to the front and drew off to upset favored Bed o’ Roses S. (G3) winner Estilo Talentoso by 3 1/4 lengths.

Ce Ce reached the finish line in a snappy 1:21.94, bringing her record in sprints this season to a perfect 2-for-2. Her lone 2021 defeat came when faltering to fourth in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Maria S. (G2), so don’t be surprised if the daughter of Elusive Quality sticks to sprinting for the foreseeable future.

A less decisive, but no less impressive, weekend victory came courtesy of Mind Control in the John A. Nerud S. (G2) at Belmont Park. The seven-furlong “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) was supposed to be an easy target for Firenze Fire, a Grade 1 winner fresh off victories in the Runhappy S. (G3) and True North S. (G2) at Belmont.

But Mind Control had other ideas. Making his first start for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, the two-time Grade 1 winner battled with Firenze Fire from start to finish and refused to yield down the lane, edging his rival by a head in 1:21.94. The victory reversed an eight-race losing streak dating back to Mind Control’s victory in the 2020 Tom Fool H. (G3).

Here’s the tricky part for Mind Control—five of his six graded stakes wins have come over seven furlongs, a distance unavailable at the Breeders’ Cup. The Breeders’ Cup Sprint is contested over a shorter six-furlong trip, while the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) would require Mind Control to stretch out over one mile.

Perhaps as the year goes on, it will become clearer which race is a better fit for Mind Control. In the meantime, he looks like a relatively rare horse without an ideal target among the 14 Breeders’ Cup events.

Knicks Go rebounds in Cornhusker H.

Although it wasn’t part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, the 1 1/8-mile Prairie Meadows Cornhusker H. (G3) at Prairie Meadows could wind up having an outsized impact on the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.

In case you missed it, 2020 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Knicks Go was breathtaking in the Cornhusker, leading all the way to score by 10 1/4 lengths in the snappy time of 1:47.33. By defeating a solid field including graded stakes winners Last Judgment, Rated R Superstar, Tenfold, and Modernist, Knicks Go rebounded from fourth-place efforts in the Saudi Cup and Metropolitan H. (G1) and recorded his first victory since January’s Pegasus World Cup (G1).

The Brad Cox trainee is clearly back on track in a big way, with a defense of his Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile title in the cards. Perhaps we’ll see him square off against Mind Control?

Upcoming “Win and You’re In” qualifiers

The Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series will take a one-week hiatus before resuming on July 17 with the Haskell S. (G1) at Monmouth Park, a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But the upcoming weekend is far from devoid of high-class racing. Saturday brings the Belmont Derby (G1) and Belmont Oaks (G1) at Belmont Park, a pair of 1 1/4-mile turf tests for sophomores. The two races could certainly produce starters for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1).

Also on the Saturday agenda is the Delaware H. (G2) at Delaware Park, an important 1 1/4-mile prize for fillies and mares. The race boasts an impressive roster of recent winners, including champions Songbird, Royal Delta, and Blind Luck, so expect to see some serious Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) contenders in action.

Stay tuned to TwinSpires Edge for more coverage and analysis as the road to the Breeders’ Cup continues!