ARCADIA, CALIF. — Plenty of good horses, just no standout. And the favorite is lukewarm at best. The Breeders’ Cup Classic closes out the world championships and figures to help sort out Horse of the Year honors.
At 3-1, McKinzie is the early choice for Saturday’s $6 million Classic on his home track.
He’s been first or second in 12 of 13 career starts and won seven times. But after two wins and four seconds this year, trainer Bob Baffert pink-slipped fellow Hall of Famer Mike Smith and replaced him with Joel Rosario in the saddle.
The 14-race, season-ending championships started with five races Friday. Nine more will be run on Day 2.
The event culminates with the Classic shown live in prime time on NBC.
McKinzie takes on 10 rivals, including Code of Honor, Preakness winner War of Will and mare Elate, who is challenging males on the 10th anniversary of superstar mare Zenyatta’s Classic victory over the same track.
“He needs to get away from the gate and get into the race early,” Baffert said. “That’s the way he wants to run and he gets stronger as he goes. But he’s got to show up that day. I’ve seen great fields put together but a lot of horses don’t show up. It’s who shows up is going to get the big prize.”
McKinzie has lost three straight at Santa Anita this year.
“That’s why I did the jockey switch,” Baffert said.
The trainer has won the Classic three times and he’d like to do it again with McKinzie. The 4-year-old colt is named for Brad McKinzie, a racing executive and Baffert pal since their college days at the University of Arizona and a friend of the co-owners. McKinzie died of cancer at 62 in 2017.
Purchased for $170,000, McKinzie has earned over $2.2 million.
“We’re all living through this horse, thinking about Brad,” Baffert said. “I feel a little extra pressure on me when this horse runs because I know we’re all thinking about him. When he got sick, that last year it was tough watching him go through what he went through. He would never complain. He didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for him. I wish I could be that tough.”
Code of Honor finished second in the Kentucky Derby and has gotten better as the year has gone on, winning the Dwyer, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. He’s looking to become the first 3-year-old since Arrogate in 2016 to win the Classic.
“We’re coming and playing in the favorite’s backyard,” trainer Shug McGaughey said. “That’s not going to be easy.”
As emotional as Baffert is about McKinzie, fellow Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has similar feelings for his pair of Classic runners, Elate and Japan-bred Yoshida. Both are set to make their final career starts Saturday.
Elate is undefeated in three starts at 1 1\4 miles.
“Some horses seem to flatten out a little bit at that distance,” Mott said, “but she always seems to be coming on strong.”
After winning the Preakness, War of Will finished ninth in the Belmont.
“He looks good,” trainer Mark Casse said. “If he comes with his big race, everyone is going to know he’s there.”
In other races Saturday:
>> Covfefe is the 2-1 favorite in the $1 million Filly & Mare Sprint
>> Eddie Haskell is the 9-2 favorite in the $1 million Turf Sprint
>> Omaha Beach, scratched as the favorite days before this year’s Kentucky Derby, is the 8-5 choice in the $1 million Dirt Mile
>> Ireland-bred Sistercharlie is the 8-5 favorite in the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf
>> Mitole is the 9-5 choice in the $2 million Sprint
>> Ireland-bred Circus Maximus is the 3-1 favorite in the $2 million Mile, where European-based horses typically dominate
>> That’s the beauty of the Breeders’ Cup,” Baffert said. “They are going to give out a lot of championships this weekend. I just hope that some of mine are on that list.”