An Early Look at the Breeders' Cup Classic

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Six weeks ago, the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) was expected to be something of a two-horse showdown.

Pacific Classic (G1) winner Maximum Security, the champion 3-year-old male of 2019, was supposed to cruise through the fall and enter the Breeders' Cup as a standout among older horses. Meanwhile, Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Tiz the Law was predicted to dominate the Kentucky Derby (G1)—and maybe even the Preakness (G1)—to emerge as a sensational sophomore challenger.

But six weeks is a long time in the sport of horse racing, and it's safe to say the Classic picture has been turned upside down since the beginning of September. It all started when Tiz the Law lost the Kentucky Derby at odds of 7-10. One can argue he was compromised by racing wider than the front-running winner Authentic, and that may be true. But Tiz the Law had every opportunity to win—he even stuck his head in front for a moment—and was simply out-dueled by Authentic in the drive.

Then Maximum Security suffered a defeat in the Awesome Again (G1), finishing second behind stablemate Improbable. Some have pointed out Maximum Security raced closer to a fast early pace, and this certainly could have affected his chances. But Maximum Security is known for his front-running speed, and in the Awesome Again he seemed sluggish from start to finish, never looking like a winner. He did show some determination to battle for the runner-up spot, but he was never a match for Improbable and lost by 4 1/2 lengths.

Authentic could have emerged as a clear-cut Classic favorite had he prevailed in the Preakness (G1), but then the filly Swiss Skydiver upset the applecart at Pimlico, rallying boldly to lead on the backstretch before digging deep to beat Authentic by a neck. At this point the Classic scene was in shambles, and it was further shaken when 2019 Travers (G1) winner Code of Honor failed to rally when second in the Kelso Handicap (G2) and Tacitus faltered off an easy lead to finish third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1).

As a result of all this chaos and confusion, Improbable has emerged as the Classic favorite after rattling off consecutive victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), Whitney (G1), and Awesome Again. But even Improbable seems tough to trust. The son of City Zip went 1-for-7 as a 3-year-old, done in by a tendency to break slowly and a reluctance to race in traffic. Improbable needs time to gather himself and settle into stride after leaving the gate, which is easier to accomplish in small fields.

Keeping the latter point in mind, check out the trips Improbable has enjoyed this year. In the Hollywood Gold Cup, he broke from an outside post against five rivals and stalked a steady pace while racing in the clear. In the Whitney, he was able to track slow fractions of :25.12, :49.74, and 1:13.36 while facing four challenges. And in the Awesome Again, he settled half a dozen lengths behind a speed duel before rallying outside to defeat four opponents.

Improbable will surely face a larger field in the Breeders' Cup Classic, so an outside draw could be critical to his chances. If he draws inside, I'm concerned Improbable will break slowly and wind up buried in traffic, unable to run his best race.

Taking all of these factors together, the Classic seems ripe for an upset winner, and I've got my eye on a couple of candidates. The 3-year-old Happy Saver is undefeated in four starts for trainer Todd Pletcher, most recently producing a professional rail rally to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup with a 100 Beyer. Stamina doesn't seem to be an issue for Happy Saver, who sprinted the final half-mile of the Jockey Club Gold Cup in approximately :48 flat. One more step forward could put him in the hunt for victory at Keeneland.

Even more intriguing is Tom's d'Etat, who has been freshened since finishing third in the Whitney. The veteran 7-year-old turned in a deceptively strong effort after stumbling at the start, rallying resolutely from last place to finish just 2 1/2 lengths behind Improbable. The slow pace didn't help him at all— assigned the race a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 6 on their 1-to-100 scale, signifying a strongly speed-favoring race. That's why Tom's d'Etat was unable to finish closer despite sprinting the final three furlongs in an exceptional :35 flat.

Tom's d'Etat had previously won four straight races, beginning with a romping victory in the Fayette (G2) at Keeneland last fall. After dominating a quality renewal of the Clark Handicap (G1), Tom's d'Etat returned from a 4 1/2-month layoff to comfortably defeat Improbable in the Oaklawn Mile, which in turn preceded a decisive 4 1/2-length win over multiple graded stakes winner By My Standards in the Stephen Foster (G2).

Impressed yet? I certainly am. And if you think Tom's d'Etat's strong finish in the Whitney was a fluke of the slow pace, I encouraged you to review the results of the Stephen Foster, in which Tom's d'Etat flew home in :35.63 after tracking splits of :23.89, :48.13, and 1:11.67.

In terms of Beyer speed figures, Tom's d'Etat has run as fast or faster than anyone this season, throwing down a 109 in the Stephen Foster. He's also versatile in terms of running style and proven at Keeneland. Throughout his career he's fired off big efforts when returning from layoffs, so I'm optimistic Tom's d'Etat will have a live chance to win the Breeders' Cup Classic at a fair price.

Now it's your turn! In this muddled year, which horse(s) do like to win the Classic?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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