Of the nine Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races open to juveniles, which has been the most successful at producing winners on the first Saturday in May? The answer is the Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park, and it’s not even close.
Few races in North American can claim a history as long and rich as the Champagne. Inaugurated in 1867, the Champagne produced 23 Kentucky Derby winners between 1892 and 2010, the majority after the race was lengthened to its present one-mile distance in 1940.
Once overshadowed by the Hopeful Stakes and the Futurity, the Champagne has become the preeminent juvenile stakes race on the East Coast. As a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), the Champagne is a key battleground for young runners taking aim at the two-year-old division championship. In addition, the Champagne offers Kentucky Derby qualification points to the top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 basis.
The list of Champagne winners reads like a “who’s who” of juvenile champions and high-class colts. Count Fleet claimed the title in 1942, one year before he swept the 1943 Triple Crown, while Seattle Slew repeated the double in 1976-77. Two other Triple Crown winners (Omaha, 1935, and Secretariat, 1973) lost the Champagne, though superhorse Secretariat did cross the wire first before suffering an infamous disqualification.
It’s no coincidence Count Fleet and Seattle Slew established the gold standards by which many Champagne winners have been judged. Count Fleet clocked the one-mile distance in 1:34.80, which stood as the stakes record until 1967. Seattle Slew claimed the record as his own when stopping the timer in 1:34.40, after which the brilliant juvenile champion Devil’s Bag established the still-standing mark of 1:34.20 in 1983.
The Champagne endured a quiet streak during the first two decades of the 21st century. Between 2000 and 2019, only one Kentucky Derby winner contested the Champagne, with Super Saver turning an uninspiring fourth-place finish at Belmont into victory in the 2010 Derby. During the same timeframe, only two other Champagne contestants managed to hit the board at Churchill Downs.
Super Saver was conditioned by Todd Pletcher, who saddled a half-dozen Champagne winners between 2004 and 2014, the most by any trainer in the modern era.
By J. Keeler Johnson
Jack Christopher emphatically put himself on the Road to the 2022 Kentucky Derby with a decisive victory in the one-mile Champagne S. (G1) at Belmont Park Oct. 2.
Backed into 17-10 favoritism after an easy win on debut at Saratoga, Jack Christopher stalked Hopeful S. (G1) winner Gunite early in the race before heading him near the top of the stretch and racing clear to earn 10 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series.
Maiden Commandperformance rallied strongly from fifth to get within 2 3⁄4 lengths at the line and earn four points as the runner-up, while third-placer Wit took two points and My Prankster one for finishing fourth.
Jack Christopher is the second horse to earn points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series for owners Jim Bakke and Gerald Isbister, who also race Iroquois S. (G3) third-place finisher Red Knobs. Bakke and Isbister sold shares in Jack Christopher to Coolmore Stud and Peter Brant after his maiden victory, and he now races for the quartet in partnership. His dam Rushin No Blushin is a half-sister to multiple Grade 1-winning sprinter and good sire Street Boss.
Jack Christopher is from the stable of Chad Brown, a major force in turf racing who seeks his first Kentucky Derby winner.
From a Derby perspective, there was a lot to like about Commandperformance’s effort. The Todd Pletcher trainee showed stamina in the Champagne, and he could improve as the distances approach the Derby trip of 1 1⁄4 miles.
|3||Jack Christopher 8-5||$5.40||$3.40||$2.70|
|2||My Prankster 7-2|