John Velazquez mirrored tactics used in his Colonial Turf Cup win three weeks ago in Saturday's $750,000 Virginia Derby (gr. IIIT) at Colonial Downs and produced the same result. With a 3 1/4-length romp, trainer Todd Pletcher's turf standout now has captured two legs of the $5 million Grand Slam of Grass.
With Chattahoochee War setting a pace (:24.99, :49.96, 1:14.43 and 1:38.23) that was similar to what Mad Adam produced on June 25, Velazquez sent English Channel to the lead shortly before coming out of the turn. The resulting sprint to the wire proved again to be no contest when English Channel overpowered Chattahoochee War in 2:02.57 for the 1 1/4-mile test for 3-year-olds on a yielding turf course.
Close throughout, English Channel never tracked from more than three lengths behind Chattahoochee War and took the lead for good between the eighth and sixteenth poles.
"Today, I wanted to be close," said Velazquez. "Not like the other day when I didn't want to be on the lead. After the rain, I didn't want to be behind horses where I know they're not going to handle the course being the way it is. I wanted to be where he's comfortable. Once I got a good position, I let him settle and he was perfect."
The winning jockey praised his mount for not letting missteps affect his effort.
"He's not very big but he has a big heart," said Velazquez. "We hit a couple a spots on the backstretch and I thought we were going to disappear for a second. It was so deep when we hit it, but he got back up. He was comfortable again."
The chestnut colt, sired by Smart Strike
out of Belva, by Theatrical, won the Colonial Turf Cup by 3 1/2 lengths. At 10 furlongs, the Virginia Derby is a sixteenth of a mile longer than the Colonial Turf Cup.
English Channel paid $4.20, $3.20, and $2.60. Chattahoochee War was second ($6.40 and $4.80), three-quarters of a length in front of Irish-bred Rebel Rebel, making his first start in the United States. Rebel Rebel paid $3.20 for third.
The 1 1/4-mile Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) at Arlington Park on Aug. 12 is the third test of the Grand Slam. The $2 million John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at 12 furlongs concludes the series, which is in its first year.
Owned by James Scatuorchio, English Channel has now won his last four races but needs two more to win the Grand Slam. English Channel won his fifth race in six starts and more than doubled his career earnings, which now stand at $872,691. Keene Ridge Farm in Kentucky bred the winner.
Scatuorchio said he was concerned that English Channel was racing so close to the lead and was then relieved to hear track announcer Dave Rodman announce that the race was becoming a sprint to the wire.
"I smiled when I hear the announcer say it was going to be a sprint to the wire. We knew that played right up his alley," said Scatuorchio who also conceded that his colt isn't very big. "At the quarter pole though, he's very big."
Silver Whistle finished fourth, followed by Crown Point, Spring House, Interpatation, Rush Bay, and Re de Café. Prince Rahy and Criminal Mind scratched.