DEL MAR, Calif. – For a horse as fast as Knicks Go, even the $5.4 million, 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) can be turned into a jaunt around the racetrack.
The race that was supposed to be a nose-and-nose battle for early supremacy, between the gray dynamo Knicks Go and the speedy challenger Medina Spirit, was not a battle in any sense. Knicks Go led every step of the way and pulled away late to win by 2 3/4 lengths in a final time of 1:59.57.
The Korea Racing Authority-owned five-year-old immediately went to the lead under jockey Joel Rosario, while Medina Spirit started off sluggish and settled off the pace under John Velazquez, on the outside of Art Collector, who raced in second.
“I broke slow, and by the wire the first time, I had to take a little hold of him,” Velazquez said of Medina Spirit.
Those tactics allowed Knicks Go to move freely on the lead, but he still traveled plenty fast. The fractions went in :23.16, :45.77, 1:10.04, and 1:35.28 through a mile. Art Collector faded, while Medina Spirit, who went three-wide through both turns, came under a drive.
“He’s very fast, and then he got to the front, like he always (does),” Rosario said. “He broke very, very sharp, and then I just told him, like (trainer) Brad (Cox) told me, just let him do his thing. And then he was just speeding, speeding.”
Hot Rod Charlie was the only horse to challenge Knicks Go, from the quarter pole to the wire, but he paid the price, as he was passed for second and third late by Medina Spirit and favored Essential Quality, respectively.
“I didn’t really know what the tactics from the other trainers and jockeys would be,” Cox said. “I kind of felt like, if they did try to go with (Knicks Go), they may jeopardize their own opportunity to win the race, and they just hoped to run with him at a mile and a quarter, but it showed – speed is very dangerous.”
The horse most hampered by the lack of a pace duel was likely 9-5 choice Essential Quality, who raced in sixth and seventh early, as many as 4 1/4 lengths behind Knicks Go, his Cox-trained stablemate. The Tapit colt was 2 1/2 lengths back at the quarter pole and never mounted a serious challenge to the winner.
Knicks Go paid $8.40 to win and pushed his record to 10 wins from 24 starts, with more than $8.6 million in earnings. He has earned more than $7.3 million in 2021 alone, from five wins and seven starts.
The discussion after the Classic quickly shifted to the Eclipse Awards, and both the Essential Quality and Medina Spirit camps did not shy away from making their case for champion three-year-old male.
“I’m proud of the fact that he showed today that he beat those three-year-olds,” said Medina Spirit’s trainer, Bob Baffert. “To me, he’s the best three-year-old. He showed it today. That’s what racing is all about – proving it on the racetrack.”
“I’m hopeful that (effort) is worthy of a championship honor for him,” Cox said of Essential Quality, who won five graded stakes in 2021, including the Belmont S. (G1) and Travers S. (G1), but has now finished behind Medina Spirit twice. The first time was in the Kentucky Derby (G1), where Medina Spirit return a positive postrace test, in a matter that is still being adjudicated.
Cox pointed to Essential Quality’s overall resume.
“He’s been running all year,” his trainer said. “I thought he was the leader in the clubhouse, and hopefully that was enough to get him a … championship.”