Accelerate winning the Pacific Classic (gr. I) - © Benoit Photo

Accelerate winning the Pacific Classic (gr. I) – © Benoit Photo

In recent years, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) has not been the most competitive race from a handicapping perspective, turning instead into a showcase showdown between two star runners (Arrogate and California Chrome in 2016, Gun Runner and Arrogate in 2017) or just a simple coronation of an undisputed champion (American Pharoah in 2015).

However, the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic promises to be different. With the retirement of Triple Crown winner Justify, the 1 ¼-mile championship race should attract a full field without any clear standouts, and it’s possible that we could witness an upset reminiscent of Drosselmeyer’s 14-1 surprise in 2011.

Among the older horses, the leaders this season have been Accelerate, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I), and Pacific Classic (gr. I), and Diversify, an impressive winner of the Suburban Stakes (gr. II) and Whitney Stakes (gr. I). Both Accelerate and Diversify have been very effective running 1 ¼ miles and have posted eye-catching speed figures, but here’s the catch—Accelerate has never won outside of California and Diversify has never won outside of New York. With the Breeders’ Cup heading to Churchill Downs in Kentucky, that’s a pretty big question mark for both of these runners.

In contrast, the trip to Churchill Downs shouldn’t be any issue for Pavel, who won the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) over this track in June. The California-based four-year-old has historically been a cut below the best horses in the division, but his runner-up effort behind Accelerate in the Pacific Classic seemed like a step in the right direction, and his affinity for Churchill shouldn’t be underestimated.

The Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won three of the last four renewals of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and while his most accomplished candidate (Justify) has been retired, Baffert could still be well represented by Collected and West Coast—second and third in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic—and also the three-year-old McKinzie. All three have been out of action this summer, but Collected and McKinzie will return to the races this weekend at Parx Racing, while West Coast—arguably the best of the trio—could train up to the Classic.

Preakness Stakes (gr. I) runner-up Bravazo and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) third-place finisher Hofburg are among the other three-year-olds with an eye on the Classic, and they’re scheduled to face McKinzie in Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I) at Parx, where we’ll get a chance to see how they stack up against Baffert’s young star. Gronkowski, runner-up in the Belmont Stakes, is taking a different route to the Classic, choosing to test his talent against older horses in the 1 ¼-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) at Belmont Park, where he will face Diversify plus the European shippers Thunder Snow (impressive winner of the Group 1 Dubai World Cup) and Mendelssohn (a dominant winner of the Group 2 UAE Derby), who likewise have their eye on the Classic.

A couple of prominent horses have already completed their Classic preparations and will train up to the race, most notably Catholic Boy, the multi-surface threat who scored Grade 1 wins in the Belmont Derby (on turf) and the Travers Stakes (on dirt) this summer. Yoshida and Gunnevera, who ran 1-2 in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, are other respected contenders who could train up to the Classic.

Elate, a two-time Grade 1-winning filly who is unbeaten in two starts going 1 ¼ miles, could potentially forego a start in the Distaff in favor of a run against males in the Classic, while the accomplished sprinter Mind Your Biscuits—runner-up in the Whitney Stakes last time out—could take a shot at in the Classic if he runs well in the upcoming 1 1/8-mile Lukas Classic (gr. III) at Churchill Downs. That race is also expected to attract the veteran Toast of New York, who finished a close second in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Suffice to say, as the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic draws closer, the race is shaping up to be a wide-open and competitive event!