The Brock Talk

Friday, October 7, 2011

Despite Breeders' Cup Riches, Champagne Thoughts Are Still Of Roses

Last Saturday, Belmont Park presented their prestigious Super Saturday which is also annually billed as the big East coast preview to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships – this year to be held at Churchill Downs in Kentucky on Nov. 5-6. Stars

Uncle Mo (photo right), Havre De Grace, Stacelita and Cape Blanco all put in memorable victories as odds-on favorites and Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. 1) winner Flat Out won as the ever so slight second choice at 7-to-5 odds. And now all are headed for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, except Stacelita; ($1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf [gr. 1]); and Cape Blanco, who has been retired.

While Saturday’s Champagne Stakes (gr. 1) is similar to those races in that it is a preview to the Breeders' Cup, (more specifically the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. 1) for these colts), the Champagne has that extra little kick. It is the same extra quality that makes the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or Keeneland’s Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity as captivating as they are. These races are our eyes into the future. Even with the inception of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984, the Champagne continues to have that special connection to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. 1).

First run in 1938, the Breeders’ Futurity is older and quickly had an impact on the Kentucky Derby run seven months later; Johnstown and Whirlaway, the first and third winners of the Breeders’ Futurity, went on to win the 1939 and 1941 Kentucky Derbies respectively. The first Champagne was run in 1946 and Capot became the first Champagne winner to run in the Derby, finishing second to Ponder in the ’49 Run For The Roses. However, Capot would come back and win both the Preakness and Belmont and be one of only a handful of 2-year-olds to be named Horse of the Year.

It would be 1953 before another Champagne winner made it to the Derby, but Fisherman and Flying Fury the year after, would both be also rans in Kentucky. The 1962 Champagne winner Never Bend, came close, finishing second to Chateaugay in the ’63 Derby that also had Candy Spots finishing third and No Robbery fifth. The next year, Champagne champion Roman Brother was fourth to Northern Dancer’s ’64 Derby.

But it would not be until the wild 1970s, that the Champagne Stakes really began to become a bit of Derby crystal ball.

In 1972, Riva Ridge completed the Champagne-Derby double and before the decade was out, Foolish Pleasure (’75), Seattle Slew (’77) (left), and Spectacular Bid (’79) had all done the same. In the 1978 Derby Alydar came up a length and-a-half short from joining the clug and defeating Affirmed. Champagne winners Forty Niner and Easy Goer finished second in consecutive Derbies in 1987-’88; but Sea Hero was able to hit both winners’ circles in the ’92 Champagne and ’93 Derby. Two years later Timber Country became the last to win both races.

Last year, Uncle Mo won the Champagne and was the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby for much of the winter. Then a liver ailment was discovered after his first loss in the Wood Memorial (gr. 1), and he missed the Triple Crown.

It is a difficult double to hit, the Champagne-Kentucky double. And the seven months between the two races are a long seven months indeed. Expecting Saturday’s winner to repeat in the Derby is too much. I think we all admit to that. And of course, we have that $1 million Juvenile in three weeks at Churchill to compel us for now. And it is not for us to question the first what surely must be the first thoughts of the winning owner, trainer and jockey tomorrow. They’ll be thinking Kentucky Derby. And so will most of us for that matter.

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