Zito Savors Champagne Victory

Jorge (Chop Chop) Chavez moved Celtic Pride Stable's A P Valentine through on the rail and gamely outdueled Point Given for a 1 3/4-length triumph in the $500,000 Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park on Saturday.

The moderate 3-1 favorite in the 10-horse field of 2-year-olds, A P Valentine was behind horses entering the stretch before Chavez moved the son of A. P. Indy through for his winning drive.

It was the second victory in three starts and the stakes debut for A P Valentine, owned by Celtic Stable, which is managed by Rick Pitino, coach of the NBA's Boston Celtics. The stable also won the Champagne with The Groom Is Red in 1998. The win was the third Champagne in a row in the race for trainer Nick Zito, who also trained The Groom Is Red and won the Champagne last year with Greenwood Lake.

A P Valentine paid $8.00, $4.40 and $3.30. Point Given returned $5.20 and $3.70 after finishing three-quarters of a length ahead of Yonaguska, who paid $5. City Zip, winner of five previous starts, finished seventh in the 10-horse field. The winning time for the 1 1/16 miles around one turn was 1:41.45.

The winner was ninth early as Saint Verre jumped out to an early lead, stopping the timer in :22.74 for the first quarter mile, with Trailthefox second. After a half mile in :45.02, Point Given had advanced from fourth to take the lead under Kent Desormeaux before relinquishing the advantage to Trailthefox. They went six furlongs in 1:09.55 as the field began to close on the leaders. Yonaguska, the 9-2 second choice, made a move on the outside rounding the turn and had the lead at the head of the stretch. Yonaguska continued to lead, with Point Given still second in the middle of the track before both were passed by A P Valentine and Chavez. Dayton Flyer, the 63-1 outsider, was fourth. City Zip, who carried a five-race win streak into the Champagne was seventh, with Saint Verre last.

"When you have a horse with this much talent, you feel good," said Zito, who followed his Champagne win with a victory in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup with Albert the Great. "What a day, an amazing day," Zito said "It's very special." (Chart, Equibase)