McKinzie winning the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita © Benoit Photo

McKinzie winning the Sham Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita
© Benoit Photo

If you have any clue which horse will emerge victorious in the November 2 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita, I applaud you. You’re one step ahead of me and perhaps 95% of the remaining handicapping world.

Injuries have seriously weakened the 3-year-old division, while the older horses have taken turns beating each other. A few horses have managed to string strong efforts back to back, and they’ve been rewarded with high rankings in my latest Breeders’ Cup Classic rankings.

But the rest of the classic division is in such shambles, I’ve decided to extend my rankings from a Top 10 to a Top 12 just to cover all the bases. Hopefully the next couple of months will help clarify the picture, but since I’ve been saying the same thing since the beginning of summer, I have my doubts.

  1. McKinzie

Partly by his own success and partly by default, McKinzie has claimed leadership of the classic division. His decisive victory in the Whitney Stakes (G1) was a major step in the right direction. He flashed speed, relaxed nicely when Preservationist insisted on setting the pace and took command smartly when the real running began. By sprinting the final three furlongs in :35 3/5, McKinzie won by 1 3/4 lengths with a 111 Beyer. I’m still not convinced McKinzie is the type of horse who will thrive running 1 1/4 miles in a large field, but on raw talent and achievements, he is the horse to beat in November.

  1. Maximum Security

Maximum Security hasn’t run as fast as McKinzie in terms of Beyer speed figures, but with five straight numbers in the 100-102 range, he is consistent and warrants respect. His gutsy victory over Mucho Gusto in the Haskell Invitational (G1) reiterated his superiority over the 3-year-old division. He just needs to squeeze out a little more speed if he’s going to hold his own against older rivals.

  1. Thunder Snow

Setbacks have thrown a monkey wrench into Thunder Snow’s summer plans. He missed a scheduled start in the Whitney and will be forced to pass on the Woodward Stakes (G1), as well. The Breeders’ Cup Classic remains his ultimate goal, but the path he’ll take to Santa Anita remains unclear. Judging from his past performances, Thunder Snow benefits immensely from his first run off a layoff, so wherever he runs next, don’t judge his performance too harshly.

  1. Code of Honor

Code of Honor has long shown potential, but he’s really thriving this summer, which shouldn’t be surprising, because his birth date is May 23, which makes him one of the youngest members of his foal crop. He had no difficulty rolling from off the pace to win the Travers Stakes (G1) by three lengths, and while the Travers wasn’t the toughest race of the season, Code of Honor made a great visual impression and handled the 1 1/4-mile distance just fine.

  1. Elate

Elate ran too good to lose in the 1 1/8-mile Personal Ensign Stakes (G1), where she came up a nose short against 11-time graded stakes winner Midnight Bisou after she led into the stretch. Trainer Bill Mott is keeping the Classic as an option for Elate, who is undefeated in three starts (all graded stakes) going 1 1/4 miles. But Elate seems best when able to dominate opponents. She has trouble winning dogfights, which she’ll almost certainly encounter in the Classic.

  1. Higher Power

Following a couple of promising efforts on turf, Higher Power switched back to dirt for the Pacific Classic (G1) and ran out of his skin, with a 5 1/4-length win for a 107 Beyer. Was it a fluke? Higher Power had never before demonstrated such a high level of form. in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1), his previous start on dirt, he finished a dull fifth. If Higher Power’s big Beyer is to be believed, he has a shot to challenge for division supremacy, but none of his key rivals in the Pacific Classic brought their  “A” game (or even their “B” game), so the jury is still out on Higher Power’s potential.

  1. Yoshida

After a disappointing start to the season, Yoshida showed flashes of his old form in the Whitney, where he rallied nicely down the homestretch to finish clearly second-best behind McKinzie. Yoshida posted a hefty 108 Beyer in defeat and will be among the favorites when he defends his title in the Woodward. Another strong performance will prove Yoshida is back to his best.

  1. Preservationist

Preservationist has become a tough horse to read following his fourth-place finish in the Whitney. He was unsettled before the race and wound up setting the Whitney pace, but he faded steadily to finish 7 3/4 lengths behind Yoshida. Clearly he went backward off his dominant victory in the Suburban Stakes (G2) at Belmont, which leaves us to wonder if he can rebound in the Woodward.

  1. Vino Rosso

Although he never threatened McKinzie and Yoshida in the Whitney, Vino Rosso was hardly disgraced in a third-place finish. Judging from his gutsy victory over Gift Box in the Gold Cup, I wonder if 1 1/4 miles is more in Vino Rosso’s wheelhouse than shorter distances. He’s the type who might outrun expectations in the Classic, where he could grind along to grab a major piece of the purse.

  1. Gift Box

After a busy winter and spring, Gift Box has been taking time off with an eye toward a fall campaign. The September 28 Awesome Again Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita could mark his return to action, and with the benefit of a freshening, he could be surprisingly dangerous in the Classic. Don’t forget, he’ll be racing over the same track and distance as the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), which he won by a nose over McKinzie in April.

  1. Omaha Beach

A brief illness caused Omaha Beach to miss the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar, but he is expected to bounce back quickly and target the September 28 Ack Ack Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs. A strong effort against older rivals in that one-turn mile could serve as a springboard to the Classic, though the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) would be an alternative if Omaha Beach isn’t quite ready to tackle 1 1/4 miles come November 2.

  1. Improbable

He didn’t defeat a large field—which has been his main problem in the past—but Improbable ended a four-race losing streak with a win in the one-mile Shared Belief at Del Mar, which he won by 2 3/4 lengths with a 104 Beyer. This classy colt might not be another Justify, but he can still be a player in late-season stakes races for trainer Bob Baffert.