Ranking the Top Breeders' Cup Classic Contenders

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

Another Triple Crown is in the books, which means it's time for horseplayers to turn their attention to the 2021 Breeders' Cup at Del Mar. The exciting year-end championship is less than five months away!

The annual highlight of the two-day, 14-race extravaganza is the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), held over the American classic configuration of 1 1/4 miles on dirt. A standout favorite has yet to emerge for the important prize, though there are plenty of talented horses taking aim at the race.

Which runners do you view as the top contenders for the Breeders' Cup Classic? Here's my ranking of 10 major players—let me know if you agree or disagree!

1. First Captain

Call me crazy, but I'm optimistic this beautifully bred three-year-old will develop into a star this summer. A son of Curlin out of the graded stakes-winning A.P. Indy mare America, First Captain is bred to relish running 1 1/4 miles, but the Shug McGaughey trainee has also shown enough speed to win his first two starts around one turn at Belmont Park. After rallying to beat next-out winner Mahaamel in a seven-furlong maiden race, First Captain stepped up for a one-mile allowance event and battled back after losing the lead to edge older rival Hometown by a length. I believe this $1.5 million yearling acquisition will develop in time to win the Travers (G1) during the summer, setting the stage for a tilt at the Breeders' Cup Classic.

2. Mystic Guide

Two starts, two victories. Four-year-old Mystic Guide has matured into a star this season, parlaying an easy victory in the Razorback Handicap (G3) into a decisive triumph in the Dubai World Cup (G1). Racing 1 1/4 miles is right up Mystic Guide's alley, and he has the pedigree to continue improving with maturity, so it's possible we haven't seen Mystic Guide's absolute best yet. The Suburban (G2) at Belmont is next on the agenda.

3. Happy Saver

The undefeated 2020 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) winner recently returned from a long layoff to win a one-mile allowance race at Belmont Park in comfortable fashion. He's expected to stretch back out over 1 1/4 miles in the Suburban, where we'll see how he stacks up against Mystic Guide. The latter will surely be favored, but Happy Saver actually defeated Mystic Guide in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and a return to that level of form would stamp Happy Saver as a serious Breeders' Cup Classic contender.

4. Country Grammer

The 2020 Peter Pan (G3) winner has made great progress since transferring to the care of three-time Breeders' Cup Classic-winning trainer Bob Baffert. After finishing second by a neck in the Californian (G2) to kick off his 2021 campaign, Country Grammer handled 1 1/4 miles just fine in the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), battling back after losing the lead in midstretch to win by a head. Keep in mind, the Hollywood Gold Cup has produced two of the last three Classic winners.

5. Royal Ship

If you like Country Grammer, you have to like Royal Ship. The Brazilian-bred gelding defeated Country Grammer by a neck in the Californian before succumbing to that rival by just a head in the Hollywood Gold Cup. The two runners appear very evenly matched, and while Country Grammer has more tactical speed, Royal Ship's late rally is a force to reckon with.

6. Essential Quality

The champion two-year-old of 2020 threw down some big speed figures when rallying to victory in a fast renewal of the Belmont Stakes (G1). Stamina clearly isn't an issue for the son of Tapit, who has made progress as a sophomore to remain atop his division. Now we just have to see if he can keep his momentum rolling over the summer and bring his A-game against older horses.

7. Hot Rod Charlie

Consistency has carried the Louisiana Derby (G2) winner to an elite position among the top three-year-olds in training. Third in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and runner-up in Belmont, the son of Oxbow is versatile in terms of running style and keeps improving on the speed figures scales, suggesting he has upside for the second half of the season. Like Essential Quality, stamina isn't a question mark for Hot Rod Charlie, who sprinted the final quarter mile of the Belmont in less than :25 seconds.

8. Idol

A stoutly bred son of Curlin out of an A.P. Indy mare, Idol hasn't been seen since rallying to beat a strong field in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1). But the Breeders' Cup Classic remains the long-term goal for the stretch-running four-year-old, who has done his best work over classic distances. He actually set a Churchill Downs track record when winning a 1 3/16-mile allowance race last fall.

9. Maxfield

Although Maxfield couldn't match strides with Idol when finishing third in the Santa Anita Handicap, he was only beaten two lengths with an effort seemingly below his best. The once-beaten Grade 1 winner promptly rebounded to dominate the 1 1/16-mile Alysheba (G2) at Churchill Downs by 3 1/4 lengths, stopping the clock in a quick 1:41.39. I would rank Maxfield higher if his lone defeat hadn't come when traveling to California for a 1 1/4-mile Grade 1 race, the same challenge he'll face in pursuing the Breeders' Cup Classic.

10. Life Is Good

It's easy to forget about the undefeated Life Is Good, who was sidelined during the winter with an ankle chip. But the Bob Baffert trainee is on the comeback trail and will be a force to reckon with if he picks up where he left off. Don't forget, the son of Into Mischief crushed Medina Spirit by eight lengths in the San Felipe (G2), and Medina Spirit later crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby.

Now it's your turn! How would you rank the top Breeders' Cup Classic contenders?


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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 www.theturfboard.com.

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