Saturday's stakes races at Belmont Park are the final key East Coast preps for horses targeting the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs Nov 4. One of the highlights of the card is the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) for 2-year-olds at a mile.
The one-mile Champagne, along with the Frizette (gr. I) for 2-year-old fillies, is part of the $400,000 NTRA Pick 4, which also consists of the First Lady (gr. IIT) and Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (gr. IT) from Keeneland. All NTRA Pick 4 races can be seen on ESPN from 4-6 p.m. EDT.
Trainer Barclay Tagg heads into the penultimate Saturday of Belmont Park's Fall Championship Meet with a strong hand that includes grade I winner Showing Up (running in the Jamaica Breeders' Cup, gr. IIT) and an impressive juvenile named Nobiz Like Shobiz who wowed onlookers while scoring by 10 3/4 lengths in maiden race at Belmont Park Sept. 9.
Nobiz Like Shobiz, owned by Elizabeth Valando, is one of the top contenders in a deep Champagne. The son of Albert the Great
--Nightstorm, by Storm Cat
, sat off a fast pace going the Champagne distance in his only start and blew away the field when jockey Cornelio Velasquez asked him for run.
As impressive as his debut win was, it is never easy to go up against winners for the first time in a grade I, which has Tagg keeping his fingers crossed.
"I know you don't go from one maiden race to a Grade I and all that stuff, but what else is there?" said Tagg, who won the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness (both gr. I) with New York-bred Funny Cide. "The first time I saw him, I thought he was something special. Of course, you wish you had more experience, but he's got a pretty good mind."
Of the key contenders in the Champagne, Scat Daddy has the most relevant stakes experience after prevailing by a neck in the Sanford (gr. II) and finishing second to stablemate Circular Quay in the seven-furlong Hopeful (gr. I) at Saratoga.
Todd Pletcher, trainer of Scat Daddy, and his father, Jake, have sold their interest in Scat Daddy to Michael Tabor, who now co-owns the Johannesburg
--Love Style, by Mr. Prospector colt with James Scatuorchio.
The Champagne continues a nice progression for Scat Daddy, whose three career starts have been at 5 1/2 furlongs, six furlongs, and seven furlongs.
"I think he definitely had the roughest trip of anybody last time," Pletcher's assistant Tristan Barry said of Scat Daddy's race in the Hopeful. Breaking from the rail, Scat Daddy stumbled at the start, made a strong bid in the stretch, but was run down by the fast closing Circular Quay in the Hopeful.
"He always shows a lot of heart to win in whatever situation he's in," Barry added. "The distance of this race should suit him very well."
Fresh off Dylan Thomas's no show in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), many handicappers may be quick to dismiss Gordon McDowall's Big Timer, whose three wins in England have all been on turf.
Big Timer is trained by Ian Semple in Carluke, Scotland. While this is Semple's first trip to New York, he does have experience with American racing. As John Gosden's assistant, Semple accompanied several Breeders' Cup horses to the U.S.
"He's definitely proven to be one of England's best 2-year-olds," said Semple, 58, who trains about 50 horses. "There's a bit of hype around him back home."
The biggest obstacle for Big Timer will be the surface switch to dirt, a situation Semple is cautiously optimistic about.
"He's got an American pedigree (by Street Cry
--Moonflute, by The Minstrel) and he's a well-balanced athlete," said Semple, who is hopeful a good run in the Champagne could lead to a start in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I).
Big Timer was gelded when one of his undescended testicles caused him pain, and his trainer believes that has made a difference in his races. Tom Eaves has ridden Big Timer in all the starts across the Atlantic and will be up again Saturday.
Beancounter Stables' I'm a Numbers Guy will face his toughest test yet, after a pair of wins against New York-breds. The son of City Zip won the Bertram F. Bongard by seven lengths, giving trainer Tim Ritchey confidence the colt could handle open company.
"I think a one-turn mile is right up his alley," Ritchey said. "He's going to face much tougher company. We'll see how he runs and then decide if he deserves a chance in the Juvenile."
Last fall, trainer Doug O'Neill brought Stevie Wonderboy to New York and he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. This time, he is hoping a west to east trip could help set up J. Paul Reddam's recent maiden winner Liquidity.
Others with stakes experience in the Champagne include the first and third finishers from Monmouth's six-furlong Sapling (gr. III), Xchanger and Buffalo Man, as well as Got the Last Laugh, who dead-heated to win the Arlington-Washington Breeders' Cup Futurity (gr. III) Sept. 10.Champagne Stakes (gr. I), 2-year-olds, one mile, $400,000, Saturday, Oct. 14, approx. post 5:15 p.m.
PP - Horse - Jockey
1 - Liquidity - Eibar Coa
2 - Nobiz Like Shobiz - Cornelio Velasquez
3 - My Golden Opinion - Fernando Jara
4 - Pegasus Wind - Mike Luzzi
5 - Scat Daddy - John Velazquez
6 - Xchanger - Joe Bravo
7 - Big Timer - Tom Eaves
8 - Got the Last Laugh - Kent Desormeaux
9 - Buffalo Man - Javier Castellano
10 - I'm a Numbers Guy - Stewart Elliott