Using history to profile the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner

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The Breeders’ Cup Classic is one of the most prestigious races in the world and one of the most difficult to win as it regularly features both the best 3-year-olds and older males in the U.S. and, sometimes, draws elite females and European invaders.

This year appears to be a more wide-open edition than usual with no clear standout for the $6 million, 1 ¼-mile race on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park.

This year more than most, any little nugget of information could prove beneficial when evaluating an evenly matched group, so hopefully this exercise digging below the surface might uncover several key indicators to look for when handicapping the 2019 Classic.

With that in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into the last 20 editions of the Classic. First, we’ll take a closer look all 20 races to try to identify some historical trends that could provide a key angle or two to consider.

Since this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, I’ll then narrow the scope to go in depth on the seven editions of the Classic held at Santa Anita with a focus on the five races held on a dirt main track.

Finally, we’ll take a closer this year’s leading contenders to try and identify a few runners that fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and perhaps a top entrant or two that might be vulnerable.

What are some of the key takeaways from the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Classic?

  • Recent form is by far the best indicator. Thirteen of 20 Breeders’ Cup Classic winners won their final prep race and every winner in this 20-year timeframe finished in the top three in their final prep.
  • Drilling down further into recent form, looking at the pre-Breeders’ Cup starts from June through October, the winners of this race combined to post 37 wins from 65 total starts with 60 top-three finishes. That’s a win percentage of 57% and a remarkable 92.3% top-three finishes from June-October by future Breeders’ Cup Classic winners from 1999-2018! Only one horse, Cat Thief, finished outside the top three more than once during this key stretch and that was 20 years ago.
  • Only three Classic winners since 2000 finished outside of the top three in a prep race from June through October.
  • Eighteen of the 20 winners were Grade 1 winners entering the race, including each of the last 15. The other two, Volponi in 2002 and Pleasantly Perfect in 2003, were Grade 2 winners.
  • Ten of the last 20 Classic winners came out of a final prep race held in New York, and six prepped at Santa Anita Park.
  • Do not overlook 3-year-olds. Facing older horses in the marquee event on Breeders’ Cup weekend is a massive challenge, but there have been seven 3-year-old winners of this race in the last 20 years, including three in the last five years.
  • Five favorites have won the Classic from 1999-2018, but by no means does that mean this is a longshot race. Ten of the last 15 winners were sent off at 5.20-1 odds or lower, 13 of 20 winners since 1999 were less than 7-1, and only five horses won the Classic at double-digit odds. It’s smart to look beyond the favorite, but you probably will not need to dig too deep.
  • In the last 20 years only two horses won the Classic at 15-1 or higher.
  • Cat Thief at 19.60-1 in 1999 was a battle-tested 3-year-old for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas who had won only the Grade 1 Swaps Stakes that year but had performed well in many major stakes throughout season, including seconds in both the Haskell Invitational and Blue Grass Stakes as well as thirds in the Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby.
  • While Arcangues at 133.60-1 in the Classic 26 years ago stands as one of the biggest upsets in U.S. racing history, Volponi is the only true bomb over the last 20 years when he won at 43.50-1 odds in 2002 at Arlington Park. Volponi had finished the top three in four straight graded stakes on grass with one win during that stretch from July through September. He shifted back to the main track and closed to finish second in the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup Handicap in his final Classic prep.
  • The Classic over this 20-year stretch has been a pretty fair race from a running-style standpoint, but speed has been a valuable commodity and eight of the 20 winners profiled as pacesetters or horses who press the pace.
  • Horses who profiled as closers entering the Classic have won four of the 20 editions, expanding to six if you count horses who were slightly more versatile closer/stalker types.
  • Digging a little deeper into the pace mechanics of the last 20 classics, six winners led at the first point of call and nine were in the top three after a half-mile.
  • Nine winners over the last 20 years were at least 4 ½ lengths back after the first half-mile, with five winners 10 lengths back or more at the second point of call, but none of those occurred after 2011.
  • Four of the last seven Classic winners were pacesetters and none was more than 3 ½ lengths back after a quarter-mile or a half-mile, so speed has been increasingly dangerous in recent years.
  • The average margin of victory is 1.7 lengths with a median of one length over the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Classics, but there have been quite a few thrilling finishes with five races decided by a neck or less and three by a nose.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure for the last 20 editions of the Classic was 121.5 with a median of 122.

How does the outlook change when narrowing the focus to the seven Breeders’ Cup Classic races held at Santa Anita, with a focus on the five editions held on dirt in 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016?

  • Six of the seven Breeders’ Cup Classic winners at Santa Anita Park from 1999-2018 won their final prep race, including four of five on the dirt at Santa Anita.
  • Fort Larned in 2012 is the lone exception; he finished third by 5 ½ lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup before winning the Classic.
  • The seven Classic winners at Santa Anita from 1999-2018 combined to win 16 of their 24 starts from June through October (not counting the Breeders’ Cup) for a 67% strike percentage. They finished in the top three in 91.7% (22 of 24) of those starts.
  • Looking only at the five Classics held on dirt, those five winners combined to win 11 of 16 starts (68.8%) and finish in the top three 87.5% of the time in races from June to October (not counting the Breeders’ Cup).
  • Six of the seven Santa Anita Classic winners had already won a Grade 1 race, including each of the last six. Pleasantly Perfect in 2003 was a Grade 2 winner entering that year’s Classic.
  • Three of the seven editions of the Classic held at Santa Anita between 1999 and 2018 were won by a 3-year-old, including the last two: Bayern (2014) and Arrogate (2016).
  • None of the five editions of  the Classic on dirt at Santa Anita was won by the chalk with 7.10-1 the average odds for the five winners and 6.10-1 the median. The winners ranged from 1.70-1 for Arrogate in 2016 to 14.20-1 for Pleasantly Perfect in 2003.
  • Only Zenyatta in 2009 won as the favorite from the seven editions at Santa Anita from 1999-2018.
  • If you filter out the two editions of the Classic held on a synthetic surface, running style becomes more significant. Of the five races on dirt at Santa Anita, only Pleasantly Perfect profiled as a closer. None of the four most recent winners was more than 2 ½ lengths back after the first half-mile with two, Fort Larned in 2012 and Bayern in 2014, leading from start to finish.
  • The average position of the five winners on dirt at Santa Anita during this timeframe was 1 ½ lengths back after the first half-mile.
  • The last four editions of the Classic at Santa Anita were deciding by a half-length or less with Bayern (2014) and Mucho Macho Man (2013) prevailing by a nose.
  • The average winning Equibase Speed Figure for the seven editions of the Classic from 1999-2018 was 120.7 with a median of 122. For the five races on dirt during that timeframe, the average dipped to 119.4 with a median of 119.

Which of this year’s contenders fit the typical profile of a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner?

I was initially a bit skeptical of Code of Honor’s chances because the Breeders’ Cup was not the target race for the 3-year-old. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey is the master of executing a finely scripted game plan, but with the main targets – the Runhappy Travers Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup – already in the win column, McGaughey first said he wasn’t strongly considering the Breeders’ Cup. That subsequently changed and it’s probably a key distinction whether that was because of pressure from the owner or because Code of Honor was doing exceptionally well. We probably will never know the full story, but what is clear is that history tells us Code of Honor has a very good chance to win this race. Code of Honor has won all three starts since June (albeit one via disqualification), including a pair of Grade 1s at 1 ¼ miles, so he’s a proven Grade 1 winner in career-best form. Seven of the last 20 editions of the Classic were won by 3-year-olds, including two of the five held on the dirt at Santa Anita and three of seven overall at the Southern California venue. Historically, his running style is not ideal for the dirt main track at Santa Anita, but Code of Honor has shown enough speed that he could stalk the pace rather than rally from far back and he does boast elite acceleration. He figures to be in that sweet spot of 5.20-1 odds of less that has produced half of the last 20 Classic winners. I’d be surprised if Code of Honor does not run well in the Classic. My main concerns are that he might have too much ground to make up in the stretch and he has some improving to do from a speed figure perspective (112 career-top Equibase Speed Figure).

McKinzie, on the other hand, has absolutely run fast enough to win as he exceeded a 120 Equibase Speed Figure twice this season while amassing two wins and four seconds in six races. He’s also in good form with a win and two seconds in three starts since June, including a Grade 1 win in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga in August, and has the tactical speed that has been so effective in the Classic on the dirt main track at Santa Anita Park. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won the Classic in three of the last five years, including twice at his Santa Anita home base, and McKinzie figures to be the favorite. What’s not to like? Well, McKinzie has lost four times this year as the favorite, including three times at 1-2 or less, and is winless in two career starts at 1 ¼ miles. Mongolian Groom ran a monster race when defeating him in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes, but I have to admit I was shocked when McKinzie could not get past the 25.40-1 longshot who then pulled away to win by 2 ¼ lengths. McKinzie might win the Classic, but I’ll take my lumps if he does because I’m going to try to beat him.

I won’t settle on a pick for this race until after the final entries are in and the post positions drawn, but I’m leaning toward Vino Rosso. He has the tactical speed to set the pace, press the pace, or stalk depending upon the situation and he comes off a strong race when crossing the finish line first in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, only to be disqualified for interfering with Code of Honor several times in the stretch. I thought the stewards made the right call, but it doesn’t change the fact that Vino Rosso ran a winning race. He’s finished first (DQ to second) and third in two starts since June and the 112 Equibase Speed Figure he earned in the Jockey Club Gold Cup was two points off his career top. He’s making his third start following a layoff after his Grade 1 win in May in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes at this track and distance, so I think he’s primed for a career-best race.

I expect Elate will be a fairly popular choice for this year’s Classic, and given the lack of a clear standout the multiple Grade 1-winning, 5-year-old Medaglia d’Oro mare looks like a win candidate on paper. Fillies/mares have performed quite well in the Classic throughout the history of the event with six total entrants, one win (Zenyatta in 2009), three top-three finishes, and none finishing worse than sixth. Elate is in good form with two Grade 2 wins and two seconds in Grade 1 races in four starts since June, and she has tactical speed as she typically stalks the pace from within a few lengths of the lead. Her career-best 119 Equibase Speed Figure also places her among the fastest of this year’s contenders, but that performance along with both of her Grade 1 wins came in previous seasons. Most troubling to me, was her runner-up finish to Blue Prize in the Grade 1 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes in her final prep race. Blue Prize is a quality racemare, but prior to stepping up to face males in the Classic, I expected more from Elate in a five-horse field. She had the lead in the stretch and Blue Prize reeled her in to beat her by a half-length. On the positive side, I believe 1 ¼ miles is Elate’s best distance and she’s finished first or second in 12 of her last 14 starts. She is a legitimate contender, but I’d feel better about her chances if she entered off a victory or had at least won a Grade 1 race this year.

A quick look at several other top contenders: Yoshida is a Grade 1 winner on turf and dirt capable of a big race on his best day. He’s shown improvement of late running second in the Grade 1 Whitney and then third in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, but his last win came Sept. 1, 2018, and his deep-closing running style might leave him with a ton of work left in early stretch. … If I’m going to take a shot on a closer, I prefer Owendale coming off a Grade 3 win in the Oklahoma Derby. I thought his fifth in the Runhappy Travers Stakes was better than it looked on paper and he ran a 114 Equibase Speed Figure when winning the Grade 3 Ohio Derby in June. I could see the Preakness Stakes third-place finisher rallying for a minor share at a nice price. … Mongolian Groom probably will set the pace in the Classic and could lead a long way. If he repeats the 126 Equibase Speed Figure he earned when he outfinished McKinzie in the Awesome Again Stakes, Mongolian Groom probably wins the Classic. I’m skeptical he will be able to match that effort, however, and I think he’ll have more competition for the lead. Mongolian Groom’s races since June include a sixth, a fifth, a well-beaten third, a runner-up finish, and the Awesome Again win. He’s too inconsistent for me. … Higher Power’s 5 ¼–length win in the Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic Stakes stamped him a Classic contender, but he finished 7 ½ lengths behind Mongolian Groom in the Awesome Again and has lost his two starts on the main track at Santa Anita by a combined margin of  14 ¾ lengths. … Perhaps we’ll see a breakout performance by Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby winner Math Wizard in his first start against older horses or a bounce-back effort from Preakness Stakes winner War of Will. Either 3-year-old would light up the tote board with a win.

Watch NBC Sports’ coverage of the 2019 Breeders’ Cup starting with Future Stars Friday on Nov. 1 from 4-8 p.m. ET (NBCSN) and continuing with Championship Saturday on Nov. 2 from 3:30-9 p.m. ET (NBCSN until 8, NBC from 8-9).