The 39th running of the Grade 1, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic may be talked about for years if the top contenders repeat their best efforts to date, with six of the eight horses entering the race off wins at the top level. None was more impressive than the undefeated Flightline, a lightly raced colt who won the Grade 1 Pacific Classic Stakes this summer in effortless fashion by 19 1/4 lengths.
Last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Life Is Good has only lost twice in 11 races, most recently the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes, and in all nine wins has been unchallenged when leading from start to finish. Then there’s Taiba, with five career races under his belt – the same as Flightline – including a win in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby in his most recent race. Olympiad has won eight of 12 career starts including the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at the distance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic on the same day Flightline won the Pacific Classic.
Last year’s Classic fourth-place finisher, Hot Rod Charlie, has proven more mature and stronger in 2022, including when winning the Grade 2 Lukas Classic Stakes five weeks ago. In that race, Hot Rod Charlie defeated Rich Strike by a head at the finish. Rich Strike had posted the 80-1 upset in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby in May before two poorer efforts, then rebounded to nearly earn his second graded stakes win of the year in the Lukas Classic. Epicenter led late in the stretch in the Derby before being passed by Rich Strike and has won two important races since then including the Grade 1 Travers Stakes. Happy Saver completes the field and has been very consistent in his career as well with five wins and five runner-up finishes in 12 lifetime starts. He won the 2021 Jockey Club Gold Cup and this year has finished second to three other Classic entrants, behind Olympiad in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes, behind Flightline in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap and behind Life Is Good in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes.
Analysis and main win contenders
An adage in horse racing states “speed is the ultimate bias” and that is why Life Is Good appears to have a slight edge over the ultra-talented Flightline in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. It also doesn’t hurt that Life Is Good has morning line odds of 6-1 compared to 3-5 for Flightline, so he offers better returns for a win bet. In terms of sheer overall ability, the career-best 125 Equibase Speed Figure Life Is Good earned when winning the Whitney Stakes in August and the 123 figure in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes this past January stack up against the 128 figure Flightline earned winning the Pacific Classic in September and the 126 figure earned when winning the Malibu Stakes last December.
Then, there’s the likely pace scenario which suggests Life Is Good will have the early lead as he has post position two in the gate and is drawn inside Flightline, who will be breaking from post position four. This allows Irad Ortiz, Jr. on Life Is Good to control the pace for as long as possible, and considering that in each of his six career wins in two-turn races Life Is Good led from start to finish, he has proven to be the kind of athlete that refuses to let another horse pass him. There are also no doubts in my mind Life Is Good can run as well at the Classic distance of 1 1/4 miles as he has run at shorter distances, as his sire Into Mischief produced 2020 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Authentic. Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. teamed up to win the 2019 Classic with Vino Rosso and I think they might get their second recent win in the Classic with Life Is Good if the colt gets on the front end and into a steady stride just as he did when winning the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Flightline is undefeated and untested in five career starts. He has had layoffs of around four months twice and five months between races before his most recent three-month layoff prior to winning the Pacific Classic, but when he does come onto the track for a race he’s all business and then some. Prior to the Pacific Classic, there was also a question as to whether Flightline could run as well around two-turns as he had in his first four races, all around one turn. That question was put to rest with his performance in the Pacific Classic, when he went from a half-length behind the leader after a half-mile to 10 lengths in front another quarter mile later, before easing down at the wire to a 19 1/4-length triumph with a 128 figure.
Resuming training at the end of that month, Flightline has put in some superb morning drills, including one at Keeneland last week which was the fourth best of 62 on the day. Likely to be in second position behind Life Is Good shortly after the start, the biggest questions regarding Flightline winning this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic are whether his Pacific Classic effort was an outlier, and whether he, or any other horse in the field, can pass Life Is Good if that one gets his way alone on the front end.
Olympiad certainly can’t be ignored as a contender to win this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic as he has won eight of 12 races and earned over $2 million to date. Putting aside his loss when fourth behind Life Is Good in the Whitney Stakes in August, Olympiad has won all his other six starts this year including the Jockey Club Gold Cup in September, at the distance of the Classic. In the Stephen Foster Stakes in July, Olympiad earned a career-best 123 figure within hailing distance of the 125 and 128 best figures earned by Life Is Good and by Flightline, respectively. Always close to the pace in the early stages, Olympiad demonstrates over and over he understands when to pick up the pace when jockey Junior Alvarado asks him and then the colt doggedly wears down the horses in front of him to win. Although it may seem the early speed of Life Is Good may be hard to beat as well as the tremendous athleticism of Flightline, Olympiad may be the fighter who comes out on top in this skirmish to post the upset (10-1 odds on the morning line) in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Comments on the rest, none of which would be a total surprise if winning this race:
Taiba was unseasoned when entering the gate for this year’s Kentucky Derby, having run just twice, and he showed it when facing 19 other horses and finishing 12th. Maturing quickly after nearly three months off, he returned for a game second-place effort by a head behind Cyberknife in the Haskell Stakes in July with a 104 figure before an even better effort defeating Derby third-place finisher Zandon, as well as Cyberknife, to win the Pennsylvania Derby with a 114 figure. Even projecting another 10 point improvement to a 124 figure, seeing that last year’s Pennsylvania Derby winner, Hot Rod Charlie, only managed a fourth-place finish in the 2021 Classic, I believe Taiba is a cut below the best in this field.
Happy Saver may not win, but he could be this year’s Effinex and finish second at high odds. If you don’t recall, Effinex ran second from start to finish in the 2015 Classic behind American Pharoah at high odds and I think Happy Saver may do the same thing, although not while running second from start to finish but more likely rallying from fifth or fourth. He opens at 30-1 and considering he has finished second three times in four starts this year, behind Olympiad, Flightline and Life is Good, that prospect is not out of the question. The effort in the Whitney behind Life Is Good resulted in a career-best 122 figure and considering Happy Saver has never finished worse than third in three tries at this Classic distance, he is a very interesting long shot in this field.
Hot Rod Charlie is about as game of a horse as I’ve seen in a long time as he always shows up and fights as hard as he can for the win. Still, his best efforts have come in Grade 2 and Grade 3 races this year, and although he finished a head behind Happy Saver when third in the Whitney, that effort earning a 122 figure, his other races in North America this year earned 118 and 107 figures which don’t appear competitive with the top three contenders if repeated.
Epicenter is yet another proving this year’s Classic consists of one of the best fields in memory. He has finished first or second in nine of 10 career races and is approaching $3 million in earnings. A 3-year-old just like Taiba and Rich Strike, Epicenter has done little wrong in his own division, but this is a whole new ballgame facing older horses for the first time. He ran fantastically well when second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, earning 105 and 102 figures. Then maturing physically as a 3-year-old does in the late summer, Epicenter earned a 111 figure winning the Jim Dandy Stakes and nearly the same figure (110) winning the Travers Stakes at the distance of the Classic. However, there’s no discernible pattern showing the improvement necessary to get to the 120 or higher figure level any of the top three contenders have proven capable of, and although I love his moxie, Epicenter also appears to be a cut below the best in this field.
Rich Strike provided the earthquake sports fans love with an underdog win in the Kentucky Derby this year at odds of 80-1. About as improbable as his winning was his running in the race, as only a last-minute scratch allowed him to move in from the also-eligible list. That effort earned the colt a career-best 106 figure. Following a poor sixth place finish in the Belmont Stakes in June, following nearly three months off the colt, like others, started to mature physically and mentally. Two races later Rich Strike got back to his Derby form when beaten a head in the Lukas Classic Stakes, coming up a head shy of Hot Rod Charlie. Although the 107 figure is well short of the other seven entrants in this race, Rich Strike is on a pattern for improvement in his third start off a layoff and with his fast finishing style could provide some thrills in this year’s Classic.
Win contenders in preference order
Life Is Good
You can get Ellis’ full card detailed analysis and betting recommendations for all the races at Keeneland on Breeders’ Cup Weekend (Friday 11/6 and Saturday 11/7), at Equibase.com
Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic – Grade 1
Race 11 at Keeneland
Saturday, November 5 – Post Time 5:40 PM E.T.
One Mile and One Quarter
For 3-Year-Olds and Upward
Purse: $6 Million
TV: NBC 3:30 – 6 PM ET
Ellis Starr is national racing analyst for Equibase