Kevin Martin

The big story from the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Saturday is the horse that won’t be there. Justify, the 2018 Triple Crown winner, won’t run in the marquee event of Breeders’ Cup weekend. Less than two months after sweeping the triumvirate of races for 3-year-olds, Justify’s owners sent him to stud duty because of an injury. While his absence removes some luster from this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, it remains a race packed with talent. Eleven of the fourteen entries have scored victories in the most competitive and prestigious thoroughbred races in North America and Europe.

California-based Accelerate, the expected post time favorite, has been the most consistent performer on the graded stakes circuit in 2018. He won five of six starts this year including four Grade 1 races. All of his wins came in the state of California with one miss coming at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas where he finished second in the Oaklawn Handicap back in April. The big question: Can he carry his dominant form away from the friendly confines of his home state? He drew a less than ideal outside post position and his trainer John Sadler has never won a Breeders’ Cup race out of forty-one attempts. He has many indicators of a vulnerable favorite.

Bob Baffert, Triple Crown trainer for both American Pharoah and Justify, has won three of the last four editions of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His two entries this year in West Coast and McKinzie give him a legitimate chance to add another win to his Hall of Fame resume. Early this year, McKinzie stood as the best colt in Baffert’s barn and his most promising prospect heading to the Kentucky Derby. An injury knocked McKinzie off the Derby trail which cleared the way for Justify to become the thirteenth Triple Crown winner since 1919 and Baffert’s second Triple Crown champion in three years. McKinzie returned to the track for the first time since March and won the Pennsylvania Derby in September. He’s inexperienced but full of talent. At odds that should hover around 5-1 he’ll bring a respectable return should the Classic be his breakthrough win.

The other Baffert entry is West Coast who has double the starts of his barn mate with six wins from twelve starts. He has finished first or second in eleven of those career starts. His last win came over a year ago in the Pennsylvania Derby that he followed with a third-place finish in the 2017 Breeders Cup Classic. In 2018, he notched two second-place finishes in the Pegasus World Cup and the Dubai World Cup among the most prestigious races on dirt for thoroughbreds. He returned from a lengthy six-month break to finish second behind Accelerate in the Awesome Again Stakes last month in California. With a race under his belt where he set a torrid pace, he should be in peak form on Saturday. A Baffert exacta with West Coast and McKinzie finishing first and second is a real possibility in this year’s Classic.

Thunder Snow, the horse that beat West Coast in the Dubai World Cup, has done the majority of his racing overseas. In his last start he finished second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in just his second start in North America. Thunder Snow will return to Churchill Downs for the second time in his career on Saturday and his human connections hope he has no memory of his first trip there. In the 2017 Kentucky Derby at Churchill, he refused to run soon after breaking from the gate. His jockey pulled him up before Thunder Snow made it to the first turn in one of the most bizarre Derby performances in recent memory.

Yoshida is a Japanese bred runner who has done most of his racing in North America. He’s the only Classic starter with Grade 1 stakes wins over turf and dirt surfaces. His turf score came in the 2018 Turf Classic at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day. He won the Grade 1 Woodward this summer in his first race over a dirt surface. His trainer Bill Mott has won the Classic twice and has an impressive ten wins in Breeders’ Cup races from only ninety-five starters. Yoshida’s 10-1 morning line indicates he could be overlooked by bettors. He’s a major player who will offer square win odds for his backers.

Discreet Lover will be among the longshots but if he scores an upset his story will make a great movie. His trainer Uriah St. Lewis is a native of Trinidad who came to the U.S. in 1973 and began buying and training horses in 1988 after a successful career in information technology. Discreet Lover is his first graded stakes winner and won the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in his last start at odds of 45-1. While he’s an unlikely winner on Saturday, he will certainly have the sentimental race fans among us in his corner.

Post time for Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs is scheduled for 5:44 EST.

For a rundown on all of the Classic runners, see the Hello Race Fans Breeders’ Cup Classic Cheat Sheet.

Kevin Martin is the founder of the thoroughbred racing history site Colin’s Ghost.