Who is the horse to beat in the 2021 Breeders' Cup Classic?

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October 13th, 2021

With the season of final preps drawing to a close, our eyes are turned toward Breeders' Cup.

The handicap division has been a puzzle all year, as different horses have stepped up throughout the year, and some of the top contenders are still untested against older horses.

Take a look at the top Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) contenders, and then you tell us — who is the horse to beat in the Classic?

Art Collector

Last year's Derby-season dark horse has become a serious threat in the older horse division this season.

Though he finished off the board in his first start this year, in the seven-furlong Kelly's Landing Overnight S., Art Collector has galloped toward the Breeders' Cup on a three-win streak.

Most recently, he won a loaded Woodward S. (G1) on a well-measured lead, when he held off favored Maxfield by 1 1/2 lengths.

But Art Collector has proven he does not need to make the top. His victory two starts back in the Charles Town Classic (G2) came in stalk-and-pounce fashion, over last year's winner, Sleepy Eyes Todd.

This four-year-old still has upside.

Essential Quality

Last year's two-year-old champion has been just as classy at age three.

Though he tasted narrow defeat in the Kentucky Derby (G1), he avenged that loss in three starts since and has run his record to eight wins from nine starts.

He won clear over Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont S. (G1), and even though the margins were slimmer in the Jim Dandy S. (G2) and Travers S. (G1), one of Essential Quality's strengths is that he is a horse who does not need things easy to win.

The Breeders' Cup Classic will be Essential Quality's first attempt against older horses, but he has classic stamina and he knows how to take his best game to a multitude of racetracks.

Hot Rod Charlie

Just shy of a year ago, Hot Rod Charlie was a 94-1 longshot in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), and he gave Essential Quality a tight race.

Since then, he hasn't gone off at such eye-popping odds, but he has proved his speed, stamina, and grit against the best. He won the Louisiana Derby (G2) with aplomb, came close in the Kentucky Derby, and finished a game second in the Belmont, despite a roaring early pace.

Though he was disqualified from the Haskell S. (G1) for interference with Midnight Bourbon, he earned an emphatic victory over Midnight Bourbon in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1).

Hot Rod Charlie will have other speed to tangle with as he faces older horses, but it is hard to count out a horse who always shows up.

Knicks Go

He romped in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) last year, and after he proved himself at longer distances against top horses, he is all systems go for the Classic this year.

The five-year-old has won four of his six starts this year — the Pegasus World Cup (G1), Cornhusker H. (G3), Whitney S. (G1), and Lukas Classic (G3), each in blowout fashion. His only losses came in the Saudi Cup (G1) and the one-turn Metropolitan H. (G1).

With some other speed expected for the Breeders' Cup Classic, Knicks Go will have to answer whether he has enough cruising speed and stamina to hold them off at a mile and a quarter.

Max Player

A late-season rising star, Max Player was a dark horse in the handicap division until midsummer.

He won his first graded stakes since the Withers S. (G3) last year in the Suburban S. (G2), when he tracked the pace and battled past Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Mystic Guide on July 3.

He returned in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) and made it look like a one-horse race. With another stalk-and-pounce trip, he raced clear to win by four lengths, over defending victor Happy Saver.

With tactical speed and classic stamina, Max Player has emerged as the real surprise of the division.

Medina Spirit

He is one of the only top Breeders' Cup Classic-bound three-year-olds who has faced older horses.

Though his rebound from a third-place finish in the Preakness S. (G1) came with a gate-to-wire victory in the Shared Belief S. against his own age group, he then stepped up to face older in the Awesome Again S. (G1).

He proved he was up to the task.

Quick to the lead, he shrugged off Tizamagician and drew off in the lane to win by five lengths, which set him up well to face an even deeper field of older horses at Del Mar in November.

He will have to prove he can win against several other foes with a lot of early speed, but he has home-field advantage in Southern California.

Who is the horse to beat in the 2021 Breeders' Cup Classic?

Last week, we asked you about the greatest winner in Phoenix S. history. Though Ten Broeck and Xtra Heat got some attention, Wise Dan was as dominant in the poll as he was in his turf mile career and won with 60% of the vote!