What does the draw mean for the race shape of the Breeders' Cup Classic?
The numbers were called, the jockeys were listed, and the odds were posted.
The connections of horses either sat quietly through the ceremony or scribbled down the numbers on the complimentary draw sheets distributed among the crowd in the Del Mar paddock Monday, during the Breeders' Cup post-position draw.
That is until the No. 3 horse was named for the last race Saturday, the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1).
Hot Rod Charlie's young, excitable ownership erupted in jubilation, as it is wont to do.
The truth is, the group would have burst out in celebration at the call of any number in the field. It's just what they do.
But that doesn't mean the speedy 3-year-old colt's draw is insignificant. The son of Oxbow is right in the mix for one of the most compelling race shapes of the weekend, and the draw will be a factor.
To his outside, in post 5, is last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Knicks Go, widely regarded as the speediest of them all, but farther outside is the fleet-of-foot Art Collector (post 6) and the frontrunning Medina Spirit (post 8).
So where does that leave Hot Rod Charlie, the Doug O'Neill-trained colt who nearly pulled off a gate-to-wire upset of the Belmont S. (G1), stalked and pounced to cross the wire first (and then was disqualified) in the Haskell S. (G1), and wired the Pennsylvania Derby (G1)?
"If you have the right horse, it doesn't really matter what number you have," said O'Neill's assistant, Leandro Mora. "Going a mile and a quarter, even if there's a lot of speed, the jockeys rule the race. One has to take the lead. Whoever breaks the best is probably going to be on the lead, and I doubt anybody is going to kill themselves to get to the front."
Mora said he anticipates Medina Spirit to push for the lead.
"Knowing Bob Baffert, he has nothing to lose now," Mora said. "He's probably going to send, regardless."
Mora may be right. All of Medina Spirit's graded stakes wins, and his across-the-wire-first Kentucky Derby (G1), have come on the front end, while all his losses have come with off-the-pace trips, but snatching the lead from Knicks Go will be no easy task.
A 5-year-old son of Paynter and the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the Classic, Knicks Go has led early (and most of the time, late) in every race since he was transferred to the barn of Brad Cox for the 2020 racing season. Other than fourth-place runs in the Feb. 20 Saudi Cup (G1) and June 4 Metropolitan H. (G1), Knicks Go has been flawless in his starts for Cox. He enters the Classic on a streak of three wins, in the Cornhusker H. (G3), Whitney S. (G1), and Lukas Classic (G3).
But can Knicks Go or Medina Spirit sustain their speed for 1 1/4 miles, especially if they press each other early?
One horse capable of speed, Art Collector, likely won't be involved in any pace duel. The Bill Mott trainee took advantage on the front end to win the Woodward S. (G1) last time out but likely doesn't have the early foot to go at Knicks Go or Medina Spirit. Instead, he should drop into a stalking trip, like he did in his Aug. 27 Charles Town Classic (G2) score.
"I'm not upset about the draw," Mott said. "We're somewhere in the middle, with the main speed horse (Knicks Go) inside us. Medina Spirit is outside us, but I don't see the post as problematic. I don't think (Art Collector) needs the lead, and we have somebody up there (Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith) who has been to this dance before. We'll leave it to those instincts.
"It's not a race where you look at it and go, 'There's no speed in here. Let's go.' There are several factors that can change the way the race plays out, and it's good to have someone with that experience to make those decisions."
With a hot pace all but assured, however, the advantage might fall to Cox's other runner, Essential Quality, who sits just behind Knicks Go on the morning line, at 3-1.
The Tapit colt rallied from eighth to win last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), couldn't overcome a brutally wide trip in the Kentucky Derby, and came from far back to win the Belmont, but he has shown tactical speed at times, including in back-to-back wins at Saratoga, in the Jim Dandy S. (G2) and Travers S. (G1).
"Obviously, (Essential Quality and Knicks Go are) not going to get in each other’s way," Cox said Oct. 27. "That's good for me. But (for) Knicks Go, there’s some other speed in the race ... and we're not going to take that away from him. We're going to ask him to run out of there and establish position early. And what anyone else does is up to them."
There goes the mystery, I guess.