Hall of Fame trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Shug McGaughey have collectively won five renewals of New York's most important race for two-year-olds, the Grade 1 Champagne, and each has had the pleasure of seeing one of their Champagne winners go on to be named champion juvenile colt and win a Triple Crown race the following year.
The two legendary horsemen would likely appreciate that bit of history repeating itself when they saddle two of the leading contenders in Saturday's renewal of the $500,000 Champagne, contested at one mile at Belmont Park.
The Champagne is part of the "Prep Season" portion of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, awarding points on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the first four finishers.
Lukas, who trained champion Timber Country to victory in the 1994 Champagne and the following year's Preakness, will saddle Strong Mandate, who rebounded from a modest debut effort with two stunning displays of superiority at Saratoga. Adding blinkers for his second start, Strong Mandate outran the expectations of bettors by leading throughout to win by 4 1/2 lengths against maiden company going 6 1/2 furlongs.
"The first one, we lead them over there, let them break, let them go around -- even looking at him, you can see he's not a 5 1/2-furlong horse," Lukas said. "When he broke his maiden, we put him in a situation that was more adaptable to him, and he responded. We had blinkers on him, which we knew we were going to do, and made our usual adjustments."
Returning 16 days later, on Labor Day, for the seven-furlong Hopeful, Strong Mandate again turned in a tour de force effort. Clearly relishing the muddy conditions, Strong Mandate seized control at the top of the stretch and coasted home by 9 3/4 lengths.
"You don't see big horses like this accelerate like he did in the Hopeful, and so easily," Lukas said. "He's had a great month since the Hopeful."
McGaughey, whose three Champagne wins include the 1988 edition with eventual champion and Belmont winner Easy Goer, is represented by Honor Code, a son of A.P. Indy who made a remarkable rally to win on debut at Saratoga on August 31. Running seven furlongs in the slop, Honor Code had a 22-length deficit to make up in the final quarter-mile, but with a scintillating rally up the rail he not only made up every inch but also drew off to win by 4 1/2 lengths.
The form of that particular maiden has held up well, with second- and third-place finishers Misconnect and Purple Sky both coming back to break their maidens in their respective next outings.
"He's training well, everything is good, and we're excited about running him," McGaughey said. "We'll see what happens."
Todd Pletcher, a future Hall of Famer who has saddled four Champagne winners including champions Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, will try to win a fifth with Havana, a gray son of Dunkirk who led throughout in winning at first asking by 2 3/4 lengths at Saratoga on August 23. The 2-5 favorite against seven rivals, Dunkirk blitzed 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:02 3/5 for his Coolmore connections.
"In his training I've always felt like he finishes his works well and he gallops out strongly," said Pletcher of Havana. "He's not one these horses who seems desperate for the wire in any of his works or in his race, so there's only one way to find out for sure, and we like what we've seen."
Hoping to spring an upset are Debut Ceiling, who's won three stakes including the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs; Long On Value, a two-time stakes winner who met defeat for the first time when sixth in the Hopeful; Casiguapo, 30-1 runner-up in the Hopeful; and Ride On Curlin, an Ellis Park graduate who finished fourth in the Iroquois at Churchill in his stakes debut.