One month from now, English Channel's connections will be taking dead aim at the elusive $3-million John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) for a third time. But first, owner James Scatuorchio and trainer Todd Pletcher have to get the 5-year-old son of Smart Strike back on the winning track, as they must tackle six challengers in the 1 1/2-mile Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT) at Belmont Park Sept. 30.
English Channel, a five-time graded stakes winner, has been to the winner's circle just twice in five starts this year. The latest effort was a three-length defeat to Grand Couturier in the Sword Dancer Invitational (gr. IT) at Saratoga last month. In the 1 1/2-mile route, English Channel lacked the finishing kick that has made him one of the best turf horses in the country.
Before that effort, the $3.3-million earner won the United Nations Stakes (gr. I) by a length at Monmouth Park, his lone graded stakes victory this year. Out of Theatrical mare Belva, English Channel will leave from the rail under regular jockey John Velazquez.
English Channel, who has tried the Breeders’ Cup Turf the last two years without success, won the Joe Hirsch last year as the 3-5 favorite and is trying to become just the third horse in the race’s 31-year history to win multiple times.
“Obviously, it would be a nice feat to accomplish,” said Pletcher. “The field is coming up a bit soft in numbers and there’s no big European invaders this time around. It looks like a decent spot. Hopefully one of those speed horses makes the top and we can stalk them. I think he’s much better when he’s got a target to run at.”
One of his toughest contenders is likely to be Mission Approved, a 3-year-old son of With Approval-Fortunate Find. After a pair of lackluster stakes efforts early in the summer, the William Coyro Jr. homebred has been impressive in his two latest scores. The first was a three-quarters length win in the Sept. 2 Saranac Stakes (gr. IIIT) in which he went gate-to-wire at odds of 34-1. Less than two weeks later the Gary Contessa-trained colt won by 2 1/4 in the Princeton Stakes at Meadowlands in similar fashion.
Bred in New York, Mission Approved has three wins in five career turf starts and seems to be on the rise. Eibar Coa gets the mount.
Another challenger with a ton of back class is Mustanfar. A 6-year-old by Unbridled, out of Manwah, Mustanfar has tried graded stakes competition 17 times in his 26-start career. Although the Shadwell Stable homebred has won only once in those efforts, he has placed nine times. Two of those second-place finishes came in his most recent attempts, a half-length defeat in the July 1 Dominion Day Stakes (gr. III) at Woodbine and a 4 3/4-length loss to Lewis Michael in the Washington Park Handicap (gr. II) at Arlington July 28. Both were on Polytrack.
Kiaran McLaughlin trains Mustanfar, who will leave from post 2 with Garrett Gomez aboard.
Two European-breds will get their first grade I action in America – Stream of Gold (IRE) and Green Girl (FR). Ronchalon Stable’s Green Girl is the only mare in the race.
Rounding out the field are Interpatation and Kiss the Kid.
$600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT, Race 8, 4:41 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds & Up (Turf)
PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey
1. English Channel (KY), 126, John R. Velazquez
2. Mustanfar (KY), 126, Garrett K. Gomez
3. Mission Approved (NY), 121, Eibar Coa
4. Kiss the Kid (KY), 126, Stewart Elliott
5. Interpatation (KY), 126, Jose L. Espinoza
6. Stream of Gold (IRE), 126, Eddie Castro
7. Green Girl (FR), 123, Alan Garcia