Coolmore's Havana drew away to a large lead in midstretch but had to dig deep to withstand the fast-finishing Honor Code in the final yards of Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne at Belmont Park, scoring by a neck on the wire. An impressive debut winner in his previous start, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt remained perfect and sealed a bid for the November 2 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in the "Win & You're In" race.
Irad Ortiz Jr. picked up the mount on the gray son of Dunkirk and hustled Havana forward after an awkward start. Debt Ceiling flashed to the front at the break but Havana was quickly chasing him in second, only a head back after an opening quarter-mile in :22 4/5. Havana advanced along the inside to assume command on the far turn, completing four furlongs in :45 2/5, and Honor Code was still last of nine runners, nearly a dozen lengths behind with a half-mile remaining.
"In the first part I thought they were going too fast, so I waited a little bit," Ortiz said. "I had a couple horses beside me, so I had to use him a little earlier than I wanted. He got the lead early, but he was ready. When I asked him, he picked it up."
Havana surged off of the far turn to a clear lead, recording three-quarters in 1:10 with a 2 1/2-length advantage, and continued to widen in midstretch. He led by 4 1/2 lengths with only a furlong remaining, but it got interesting late as Honor Code closed boldly on the far outside to be a serious threat in the final yards.
To his credit, Havana dug in gamely to save the win, finishing a mile in 1:35 4/5 on the fast track.
"He got a little tired at the end a little bit, but he was still running," Ortiz said. "He was perfect all the way. Thanks to the regular jockey, John Velazquez, he told me how to ride the horse, and it worked out."
Havana broke his maiden by 2 3/4 lengths in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga on August 23.
"Anytime you go from 5 1/2 (furlongs) to a mile and do it against the type of horses he was in with today, it's always a concern," Pletcher noted. "We did a similar thing with Uncle Mo, the difference being that was six (furlongs) to a mile.
"I think it takes a pretty special horse to do it. I'm proud of his efforts today. We knew we were asking him a lot, but we were doing it because we liked him a lot."
Havana paid $7.20 to win as the 5-2 third choice in the wagering.
"They were throwing down some pretty solid fractions and he was in a bit of a difficult spot because he was inside," Pletcher said. "I thought we were going to be up close; I wasn't sure if anyone would be in front of us. I think Irad did a good job of not giving up that position but not forcing it too much, either.
"He found himself three in front at the quarter pole when Debt Ceiling fell off. I could see the other horse revving up and I knew he had a big run from Saratoga. I was hoping we'd have enough to hold on."
Honor Code wound up 1 1/2 lengths clear of third in only his second career start. Off as as the 9-5 favorite, the well-bred son of A.P. Indy offered a dynamic late run to break his maiden at Saratoga on August 31.
"He put in a very strong effort in the last part of the race," jockey Javier Castellano said of the runner-up. "I had to go wide, and it cost me a little bit. I'm really happy with the way he did it. I got beat today, but I think he has a great future.
"He's a big horse, and it takes him a while to build momentum in the beginning of the race. After that, he begins to pick it up. The pace set up perfectly."
Ride on Curlin wound up third, 6 3/4 lengths clear of Casiguapo in fourth. Next came Intense Holiday and Long on Value. Strong Mandate, the 2-1 second favorite following his 9 3/4-length victory in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, never fired in a seventh-place effort. Grand Arrival and Debt Ceiling rounded out the order of finish.
"(Jockey Jose Ortiz) thought he wasn't getting around the track as well as he did at Saratoga," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said of Strong Mandate. "The two local horses (Havana and Honor Code) looked good. Maybe I should have gotten him here a couple weeks (ago) and put a couple works into him over this deeper surface. It's quite a drastic change from Churchill Downs and Saratoga to this."
Pletcher was asked if he would go to the Breeders' Cup with confidence.
"I think so," the trainer said. "I can't imagine the horses we ran against today aren't going to be certainly some of the favorites for it. I think there's room for improvement. I think he can move forward for his third start."
Lukas said Strong Mandate will look to rebound in the Juvenile, but the Breeders' Cup may not be in the plans for Honor Code.
"Having to go wide probably cost us the race, but Havana got the jump at the head of the stretch and opened up, and we were unlucky to not catch him," trainer Shug McGaughey said of Honor Code. "I thought it was an awfully big effort for a horse of his type who is just learning and is kind of lazy in the first part until you do ask him.
"You'd always like to go to the Breeders' Cup, but he's a young horse and it'd be only his third start. He'd have to ship to do it. Would the Remsen (a 1 1/8-mile, Grade 2 event on November 30) be the better spot for him at Aqueduct in his learning process? Obviously, next spring would be our main objective."
Bred in Kentucky by Harvey A. Clarke Racing Stable, Havana initially sold for $50,000 as a yearling at the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October sale. He was purchased by current connections for $575,000 at the Barretts March two-year-old sale.
The colt is out of the winning Kyle's Our Man mare Miss Turtle, who is also the dam of the stakes-placed Among the Willows. She is a half-sibling to a pair of stakes winners, Chief J Strongbow and Egg Head.
Havana has now earned $348,000 in two career starts.
The Champagne was part of the "Prep Season" portion of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series and Havana earned 10 points for the win.