Breeders’ Cup Classic Notes: ‘Things Have Lined Up’ For Maturing Max Player

Art Collector – Bruce Lunsford’s homebred 4-year-old colt Art Collector galloped about a mile and a quarter on the Del Mar main track Thursday morning at just past 8:45 with Neil Poznansky aboard. The Bill Mott pupil will attempt to give the conditioner a third victory in the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“All’s good,” Mott said. “He galloped today and he’s good. He was strong and full of himself.”

Mott also touched on the news of champion turf horse Channel Maker, third in the Longines Turf in 2020, making it into the race after the Thursday defections of Domestic Spending and United: “We’ve got to be in to have a chance to win.”

Art Collector is a son of 2006 Classic runner-up Bernardini and 2011 Filly & Mare Turf fourth Distorted Legacy and will be his owner-breeder’s eighth Breeders’ Cup chance. His closest finish was when favorite First Samurai was third after a troubled trip in the 2005 Juvenile at Belmont Park.

“I’ve been in the business 33 years and don’t own a horse farm,” Lunsford said. “I am in it to race and enjoy the experience. I would say it would clearly be the biggest win of my career if he could win. I own the mare and siblings and I have a half-brother, so that’s great. With his dam, we only got beat a head and neck for second and she ran a huge race. We bred to Bernardini at a not-too-exorbitant price and obviously it’s worked out well.

“As far as the 10-furlong distance, I think Bill’s pretty comfortable with him, since he’s won three at 9 furlongs and a lot of others haven’t run or won at a mile and a quarter yet,” Lunsford continued. “It’ll be an interesting race because of the pace.

“The reason we moved him to Bill is because of all the big races in New York. (Previous trainer) Tom (Drury) and I have a long history together and will continue to do so, just like I have had with Bill. Bill has this great ability to work his way around the New York races and my only (stipulation) with Bill was that if he’s going to take him, I want him right outside his office. Bill is really happy with the horse. (Art Collector) is like a pet now and he’s a good horse who I think can get better.”

Lunsford reflected on his most disappointing loss with the aforementioned First Samurai, who has gone on to become a credible stallion for Claiborne Farm.

“We obviously had a great trainer with Frankie (Brothers) and the best rider with (Jerry) Bailey that day, but he just had trouble at the gate and had to work his way to the front,” he said. “He got tired at the end and we got beat by a horse (Stevie Wonderboy) who never won again and a horse we beat in the Champagne, Henny Hughes. In the end, I think we were the best 2-year-old that year, along with Henny Hughes.”

Essential Quality/Knicks Go – Keeping to their same routine, Essential Quality went out before the break and Knicks Go was the last of the deep Brad Cox-trained arsenal to train Thursday morning. The two grays have both kept strong campaigns in 2021 in hopes of making it to the Classic at the end of the year. Knicks Go, the 5-2 morning line favorite, could sew up Champion Older Male honors with the win, while Essential Quality, the 3-1 second choice, could secure Champion 3-Year-Old honors with a good showing.

“It’s been a great year for both horses and, obviously, they both performed well the second half of last year. Both horses have stayed in good form for the most part. Knicks Go had a little bit of a setback obviously. We felt like we may have rushed him a little bit with the Pegasus with the quick turnaround shipping halfway across the world or to the other side of the world for the Saudi Cup and then the Met Mile. But aside from those two bumps in the road, he’s been ultra-consistent and proud of what he’s accomplished. Essential has never missed a beat. He ran a big race in the Derby. His only defeat in his career and we could argue that he’d probably ran the best race that day, one of the better races, to end up fourth. But, both horses have had great years and hopefully we can add to their resume at Breeders’ Cup Saturday.”

Express Train – Following his customary pattern, Express Train galloped his standard 1 1/2 miles this morning, with Amy Vasco aboard, in preparation for the Classic.

Trainer John Shirreffs supervised the exercise from the backstretch viewing stand.

“He likes this track a lot and he’s doing well,” Shirreffs said. “This race looks like there’ll be a lot of speed. If so, ideally, I’d like to see him break running, then follow the leaders in the second flight of horses. He likes to be outside of horses. That was how he won the San Diego Handicap here this summer.”

Hot Rod Charlie – Roadrunner Racing, William Strauss, Boat Racing and Gainesway Stable’s Pennsylvania Derby (G1) winner Hot Rod Charlie left trainer Doug O’Neill’s Barn Y just before after 8 o’clock and galloped about 1 ½ miles, two days before the Classic in which he is considered a serious contender. The Belmont Stakes and 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up drew post three and is listed as the 4-1 co-third choice in the Classic.

While the focus right now is the Classic, the fact that Hot Rod Charlie has steadily increased his speed figures and general performance level over the past year has his connections excited beyond the big race.

“The goal is to keep him in training next year,” O’Neill said. “We have a great group of owners and Gainesway is in, as well, so as long as he stays injury-free, we will have a chance to compete next year. Races like the ($12 million Dubai) World Cup and ($20 million) Saudi (Cup) could definitely on the horizon, if things work out well.”

Co-owner Strauss was very much on the same page: “As we think ahead and he continues to grow and develop and mature, we are definitely excited about next year with him. After we finished second in the Breeders’ Cup (Juvenile) last year, we then plotted out how to get to the (Kentucky) Derby; how to get there and what prep races. After that, we plotted how to get to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. When this is over, we’re going to go and set our goal for next year. There’s no obvious Derby-type race, but there are so many big races like Dubai and Saudi. Next week, the ownership group will get together with Doug and his team and strategize.”

Max Player – The connections of Max Player are seeing their patience rewarded in 2021 as they head into the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a horse who appears to be peaking at the right time after winning his past two races.

The Honor Code colt, owned by George Hall and SportsBLX Thoroughbred Corp and trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, was considered a top 3-year-old last year after thirds in the Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes, but lost some luster when he finished fifth in the both the rescheduled Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes last fall and then performed poorly in the Saudi Cup to begin this year. He started to make amends by winning the Suburban and followed that with a strong victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

“The horse has matured as expected pedigree wise, and he has stayed extremely sound,” Asmussen said. “He’s very good. And, I think things have lined up with where he is with the draw (post nine), the way the racetrack’s playing, and how he’s doing right now. We expect him to show who he is Saturday.”

Max Player galloped once around the track Thursday.

Medina Spirit – Classic winner Medina Spirit stretched his legs this morning with two trips around Del Mar’s main track this morning as he winds down his preparation for the Classic. The sophomore colt, trained by Bob Baffert, is looking to collect his fifth stakes victory of the year in the 10-furlong championship race.

Stilleto Boy – With owner Steve Moger looking on, Stilleto Boy galloped 1 1/2 miles under exercise rider Jose Sandoval early Thursday morning at Del Mar.

Winner of the Iowa Derby for previous ownership, Stilleto Boy will be making his fourth start for Moger and his brother, trainer Ed Moger Jr.

Stilleto Boy debuted for the Mogers at Del Mar in the La Jolla Handicap going 1 1/16 miles on the grass.

“We thought we would try him on grass,” Ed Moger Jr. said. “He ran good on it (finishing fifth beaten 2 ½ lengths in his lone turf try) and he will probably run on it again at some point.”

Tripoli – Pacific Classic winner Tripoli galloped Thursday morning with assistant trainer Juan Leyva aboard. Trainer John Sadler is expected to drive down from his Santa Anita Park base Thursday.

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