Promising maiden winner Jack Christopher faces Gunite, Pletcher trio in G1 Champagne

September 30, 2021

ELMONT, N.Y. – Impressive maiden winner Jack Christopher will put his talent to the test when he takes on a compact, but quality field assembled for Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne for 2-year-olds going a one-turn mile at Belmont Park. 

The Champagne, a “Win And You’re In” qualifying event for the Grade 1, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on November 5 at Del Mar, is one of two Grade 1, $500,000 events on Saturday’s card along with the Woodward at nine furlongs 3-year-olds and up on the main track. The lucrative card is bolstered by the Grade 3, $200,000 Belmont Turf Sprint Invitational for 3-year-olds and up going six furlongs on the grass along with the Grade 2, $200,000 Miss Grillo, a 1 1/16-mile turf test for juvenile fillies.

Jim Bakke and Gerald Isbister’s Jack Christopher graduated on debut going six furlongs on August 28 at Saratoga Race Course, producing a 92 Beyer Speed Figure. The chestnut son of Munnings was hustled out of the gate by jockey Jose Ortiz and raced a close second to the outside of pacesetter Back to Normal down the backstretch before powering away to an 8 ¾-length victory over next-out winner Hoist the Gold. 

Trainer Chad Brown will seek his third Champagne victory after saddling previous winners Practical Joke [2016] and Complexity [2018], the latter of whom also arrived at the Champagne off a debut score. 

“Just off one race, he’s going to have to take another step forward, but he was so brilliant with his debut,” Brown said of Jack Christopher. “We’ve had horses have success here before doing that – Complexity comes to mind. Off just one race he ran very well in the Champagne and won.”

Brown said Jack Christopher, who drilled five furlongs in 1:00 flat on September 25 at Belmont, should have no issue with stretching out in distance. 

“The way he’s training I don’t think he’ll have any difficulty getting the mile,” Brown said. “But it looks like it’s shaping up to be a really strong field of horses with experience and some other horses that broke their maiden and look good. He was certainly one of the more impressive maiden breakers at Saratoga, I would say.”

Brown said Jack Christopher had trained forwardly into his debut, which garnered plenty of well-warranted hype. 

“His works were eye catching and he’s a horse that has a lot of white on him,” Brown said. “He’s a flashy looking and unusual kind of unique horse with his markings. Between those two things, he’s easy to put on peoples’ radar.”

Ortiz will return to the irons from post 3.

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen seeks his second straight Champagne win after scoring last year with Jackie’s Warrior, sending out Gunite in attempt of a second Grade 1 victory for owner and breeder Winchell Thoroughbreds. 

The son of leading freshman stallion Gun Runner graduated at third asking going six furlongs on June 26 at Churchill Downs ahead of a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special at 6 ½ furlongs on August 14. 

Gunite handled a stretch-out in distance with flying colors when capturing the Grade 1 Hopeful on September 6 at Saratoga by 5 ¾ lengths. After being bumped out of the gate from post 3, jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. angled Gunite toward the inside, making up considerable ground down the backstretch and established command approaching the far turn before drawing away to victory.

“He’ll be the horse in the field with the most experience so hopefully that does him well,” said Winchell Thoroughbreds racing and bloodstock advisor David Fiske. “Typically, horses that come out of Steve’s parents training center [El Primero Training Center] in Laredo tend to break well from the gate. Facing all that adversity, that’s something some of the other ones haven’t faced. Hopefully, he’s learned something from all of it.”

A strong effort from Gunite will likely result in a next-out endeavor in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which is run at two turns going 1 1/16 miles. Despite having not yet raced going two turns, Fiske expressed no concern in handling the distance. 

“Last year, someone on the broadcast said that not having two-turn experience going into the Breeders’ Cup is not a hinderance, based off a lot of the previous horses that won it,” Fiske said. “About half of them that won it only had one-turn experience. I don’t think it’s an impediment for him.

“All the Grade 1 races in New York hold a special place on the racing calendar and seem to be the hardest ones to win,” Fiske added. 

Santana, Jr. will engineer the trip from post 5. 

Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, a six-time winner of the Champagne, will saddle a trio of aspirants in Wit [post 1, Irad Ortiz, Jr.], My Prankster [post 2, Luis Saez], and Commandperformance [post 6, Tyler Gaffalione]. 

Repole Stable, St. Elias Stable and Gainesway Stable’s Wit endured his first defeat last out, when a troubled second as the favorite in the Grade 1 Hopeful. The dark bay or brown colt stumbled at the start and was forced out of position but made up ground down the backstretch to pick up the runner-up spot. 

Wit won his first two starts by a combined 14 lengths, capturing his debut on June 5 at Belmont Park en route to an impressive triumph in the six-furlong Grade 3 Sanford on July 17 at Saratoga. 

“He’s got learning experience in all three of his races,” Pletcher said. “He’s gotten well-accustomed to getting some dirt in his face and dealing with some traffic. We’re just hoping for a cleaner start. We tried to break well in his last race, he just grabbed himself a little bit and had to play catch up from there. The track wasn’t kind to closers as well.”

Wit, a son of 2016 Champagne winner and first-crop sire Practical Joke, is out of the unraced Medaglia d’Oro mare Numero d’Oro. He was hammered down to $575,000 at the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, where he was consigned by Rosilyn Polan. 

Robert and Lawana Low’s My Prankster steps into stakes company following a 10-length maiden score going 6 ½-furlongs on August 21 at Saratoga. The son of leading sire Into Mischief graduated at first asking, settling in third in the early stages before powering home in the stretch to an in-hand triumph under Saez, which garnered a 92 Beyer. 

Three of Pletcher’s six Champagne winners arrived at their respective coups off a first-out graduation with Uncle Mo [2010], Havana [2013] and Daredevil [2014] all securing Champagne wins off debut victories. 

Pletcher said My Prankster touted his first-out effort with a half-mile breeze from the gate in 47 flat on August 8 on the Saratoga main track.

“He’s not an overzealous work horse,” Pletcher said. “If you hadn’t seen that gate work, you might not have expected the debut he had, but he’s a pretty laid back colt. It’s always a big stretch to go from a one start maiden to a Grade 1 stake, but we’ve had some success doing that.”

Repole Stable and St Elias Stable’s Commandperformance is the lone maiden in the field, finishing second to Don’t Wait Up going six furlongs in his September 6 debut at Saratoga. The gray or roan son of Union Rags was compromised at the break and took some kickback toward the rear of the field, but powered down the lane to finish two lengths behind the winner. 

Completing the field is Kavod, a chestnut son of Lea co-owned by trainer James Chapman with Tritain Biddinger. Following a two-length maiden victory at second asking in April at Belmont, Kavod was a close second in the Tremont on June 4 over Big Sandy. He enters off two distant fifth place finishes at graded stakes level at the Spa. 

Kavod, who adds blinkers, will exit post 4 under Charles Roberts.

The Champagne is slated as Race 8 on Saturday’s 11-race program, which offers a first post of 1 p.m. Eastern.

Inaugurated in 1867, the Champagne has seen a handful of Kentucky Derby winners score in the race during their 2-year-old season dating back to Azra in 1891. Riva Ridge [1971], Foolish Pleasure [1974], Spectacular Bid [1978] as well as Triple Crown winners Count Fleet [1942] and Seattle Slew [1976] won the Champagne before becoming household names. 

The great Secretariat won the 1972 Champagne but was disqualified for interference with Stop the Music awarded the victory. The Champagne has also been used as a steppingstone to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Fly So Free [1990], Timber Country [1994], War Pass [2007], Uncle Mo [2010] and Shanghai Bobby [2012] notching the Champagne-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile double. 

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Ryan Martin/NYRA Press Office

Photo: Jack Christopher breaking his maiden at Saratoga under Jose Ortiz on August 28. (NYRA/Coglianese)

@jonathanstettin great wrap up to the weekend. Had a $20 double to close SA with your picks!

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