Knicks Go defies age and beats the favorites to win Breeders' Cup Classic

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Joel Rosario rides Knicks Go, left, to victory during the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Joel Rosario rides Knicks Go, left, to victory during the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Del Mar. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

If you take anything away from Saturday’s running of the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic, it’s that horses can get better with age.

With a lot of attention being paid to a trio of 3-year-olds, it was 5-year-old Knicks Go who shot out of the gate and went wire-to-wire to win the richest race in the United States. The three 3-year-olds — Medina Sprit, conditional winner of the Kentucky Derby; Essential Quality, winner of the Belmont Stakes; and Hot Rod Charlie, second in the Belmont Stakes — finished second to fourth.

The fact that Knicks Go won should not be a surprise as he has three Grade 1 wins since moving to the Brad Cox barn at the beginning of last year after a very undistinguished career with previous trainer Ben Colebrook. Knicks Go won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile last year and the Pegasus World Cup this year.

Racing has a habit of not celebrating its stars but instead retiring them. So, both Cox trainees, Knicks Go and Essential Quality, will be sent to the breeding shed next year. Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie, who have a less attractive pedigree than Essential Quality, will race as 4-year-olds.

“I know people kind of frown on him [because he’s] speeding to stud,” Cox said. “But I think he’s got everything it takes to be a stallion. He’s a Grade 1 winner, too, and Bob Colebrook was responsible for that.

“I think we are in a day and age where horses go to stud so early and he’s a throwback horse in that he’s raced at 4 and 5 and raced as much as he has [24 races]. So very proud of what he has accomplished this year and ending last year and hopefully he’ll pass it on as a stallion.”

Knicks Go was never seriously tested under a ride by Joel Rosario. The colt darted to the lead quickly, relaxed down the backstretch allowing the following pack to inch closer and then as they turned for home went very wide entering the stretch but straightened out to win by 2¾ lengths.

Knicks Go paid $8.40, $6.20 and $4.00, beating seven other horses in the 1¼-mile race. The remainder of the field, in order, was Medina Spirit, Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie, Stilleto Boy, Art Collector, Tripoli and Max Player.

“He’s very fast and then he got to the front like he always does,” Rosario said. “He looked like he was really enjoying what he was doing up there. I can see the gleam in his eye. He was so relaxed, so calm, he’s an unbelievable horse.”

Even though Cox won the biggest race of the two-day event, it was actually a comedown from last year when he won a record-tying four races.

“I compare it to coaching a major league football team or a Major League Baseball team,” Cox said. “You’re really under the gun. You always have to be ready to perform or have the horses ready to perform and you’re always moving forward.”

The sport is definitely set up around 3-year-olds and not older horses and the three in the Classic represented the best of this year.

Medina Spirit’s trainer Bob Baffert has been the subject of scrutiny after the horse tested positive for a legal anti-inflammatory, but not legal on race day. Baffert has not been charged with anything and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission hasn’t met to determine if the Derby win will be stripped from the horse.

But none of that mattered on Saturday.

“The winner was just too much,” Baffert said. “I’m proud of the fact that [Medina Spirit] showed up and that he beat those 3-year-olds. To me, he’s the best 3-year-old. … That’s what racing is all about, proving it on the racetrack. And he proved that he’s the real deal.”

Hot Rod Charlie, trained by Doug O’Neill, also ran a good race.

“I was in a good spot, able to save ground, and he ran his race,” jockey Flavien Prat said. “He made his move, but they were just better than us.”

Cox used some of his postrace time to promote Essential Quality for the Eclipse Award for best 3-year-old male.

“He ran well,” Cox said. “I’m hopeful that is worthy of a championship honor for him. He’s been running all year and I thought he was the leader in the clubhouse and hopefully that was enough to get him an Eclipse championship.”

The Saturday on-site crowd was a capacity-controlled 26,553, compared to 37,692 in 2017. But the event set a two-day wagering record of $182,165,297, an increase of 4.3%, when it was held in 2019 at Santa Anita.

The Breeders’ Cup is a secretive organization when it comes to naming future sites, even though it usually follows a predictable pattern. The event will be held next year at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. And based on a recent rotation between California and Kentucky, it could be at Santa Anita in 2023 and back in Del Mar in 2025.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.