Saturday's Champagne Stakes at Belmont is unquestionably the most exciting two-year-old race we have handicapped all year, as it features a trio of very interesting prospects. "The Big Three" are made up of the sensationally speedy Havana, the regally bred but sluggish stretch runner Honor Code, and the equally royally bred and far more proven Strong Mandate.
All three of them are conditioned by training legends who have reigned as the dominant east coast trainer at one time or another in the past. Simply put: Pletcher, Shug, and Lukas.
Havana is the horse whom we will certainly learn the most about in this race. Originally purchased at auction for just $50,000 at the Fasig Tipton Kentucky sale on October 22nd, 2012, Havana was quickly put into training and entered in the Barretts March two-year-old sale.
During the breeze show for that sale, Havana rocketed a furlong in 9.60 seconds. The alarming burst of speed he flashed led to him being purchased for $575,000 on March 4th of this year. In a matter of just five and a half months, Havana's purchase price at public auction increased by eleven and a half times. That is what you call a successful pinhook.
Havana made his career debut going five and a half furlongs at Saratoga on August 23rd for trainer Todd Pletcher. Bet to strong favoritism at odds of 2/5, he shot to the lead, and went wire to wire. His final time was just 0.13 seconds off of the track record, and he was assigned a sparkling TimeformUS speed figure of 107.
After almost breaking stop watches in the breeze show at California's premier two-year-old sale, and then almost breaking a track record in his debut at Saratoga, Havana now stretches out to a mile and breaks from post position number three in a race where seven of the nine horses entered have wire-to-wire victories under their belts.
The pace dynamics look horrible for Havana. He's facing so many horses who have had a great deal of success sprinting on the front end that it's almost certain to be a viciously fast and contested pace for the distance. It will take a sensationally brilliant and game performance for any horse to win this race on the front end. Indeed, the pace complexion is so dire that jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. might have to resort to rating tactics with Havana.
The other extremely exciting second-time starter in the Champagne is Honor Code. This horse hinted at a dramatically opposite running style from Havana's when he won his debut, sprinting at Saratoga, from more than 22 lengths off the pace.
TimeformUS past performances have a cool feature that allows you to display the incremental splits for each horse. In the case of Honor Code, in his debut (at seven furlongs), he crawled his opening quarter in 24.89 seconds. His second quarter was a snail-like 24.36 seconds. Horses normally start to decelerate sharply in the third quarter of seven furlong races, but not Honor Code. He turned on the rockets and unleashed a 22.29-second third quarter, much of it run around the far turn. After that freakish third quarter, he powered home with a final furlong in 11.94 seconds over the gooey going, and easily drew off to win by more than four lengths, with a pair of next-out winners finishing second and third behind him.
Honor Code was assigned a TimeformUS speed figure of only 79. However, it is almost impossible for a two-year-old first-time starter to run as fast as he did in the final three furlongs of a race.
I am convinced that Honor Code has the brightest future of any horse in this field. His trainer, Shug McGaughey, brings horses along slowly and has an absolutely brutal record with both two-year-olds and second-time starters. Shug's TimeformUS trainer rating with two-year-olds is just 45, and his trainer rating with second-time starters is just 50.
Moreover, Shug's two-year-olds are almost always way overbet. Since 2005, Shug's two-year-olds have won just 26 races from 279 starts. That's a mediocre 9% win percentage coupled with a brutally bad $2 ROI of $0.81, which means you're losing almost 60% on every dollar you bet. Even worse, that ROI plummets all the way to $0.72 from a sample size of 199 starts when you weed out Shug's two-year-olds who raced on turf.
This year's Kentucky Derby winner, Orb, was so mediocre for Shug as a two-year-old that he needed four starts to break his maiden. Orb was defeated by 23 lengths in his second career start, after breaking through the gate and needing to be reloaded. In Orb's third career start, he was fourth in a maiden special weight race at Aqueduct. Shug's other star horse this year, Point of Entry, didn't race as a two-year-old, but needed four starts just to break his maiden.
The bottom line is that bettors need to avoid betting on Shug's two-year-olds. Bettors should also generally avoid the dopey trap of taking short prices on horses with inferior speed figures. However, the pace complexion of the Champagne favors a stretch-running closer to such an extreme that I will be selecting Honor Code to win this race.
The final member of the Big Three is the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Strong Mandate. He's the most proven one of the bunch, having won the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes by a stunning nine and three quarter lengths. That was the largest margin of victory by a Hopeful winner in recent memory. Strong Mandate was assigned an excellent 106 speed figure for his heroics.
Much as with Shug, D. Wayne Lukas is a trainer you absolutely want to avoid betting with two-year-olds. This year, Lukas has a record of 48-2-1-3 with his two-year-olds. Strong Mandate represents both of those wins. Lukas two-year-olds not named Strong Mandate are zero for 45 and have only a single second-place finish.
In addition, since 2006, Lukas is just 50 for 737 with his two-year-old starters. That's a microscopic win percentage of just 6.8%
His 2013 stable stars Will Take Charge and Oxbow weren't exactly world beaters at age two. Will Take Charge was one for four. He finished 13th beaten more than 25 lengths in the Kentucky Jockey Club after his maiden win, and was defeated in a stakes race at Remington Park by 128/1 longshot Texas Bling in his final start at age two. Meanwhile, Oxbow was just one for five at age two, and needed four starts just to break his maiden. Whenever such promising lightly raced horses appear, it's fascinating to study their pedigree and look for hints and clues of things to come. Havana is sired by freshman stallion Dunkirk, who was a $3,700,000 yearling who also raced for Pletcher. Dunkirk's finest moment was a second-place finish in the 2009 Belmont Stakes. He split the Birds, one might say, since Summer Bird was the winner and Mine That Bird was third. Havana's dam was a useful sprinter, and is a half sister to two very fine sprinters in Egg Head and Chief J Strongbow. The ill-fated Egg Head gave then-undefeated Lost In The Fog his first serious test in the 2005 Riva Ridge. The pedigrees get far more regal in the case of Honor Code and Strong Mandate. Honor Code is sired by the living legend A. P. Indy. His third dam was the Hall of Famer Serena's Song. If you haven't followed horse racing long enough to remember Serena's Song, you have my condolences. She was traveled and campaigned extremely hard and was a brilliant performer and a true warrior. I don't expect us to see another top class filly or mare quite like her again. I love Strong Mandate's pedigree almost as much as Honor Code's. Strong Mandate is sired by two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow. His dam is three-time Grade 1 winning millionaire Clear Mandate, who won a 1 1/4 mile Grade 1 race by five lengths at age five. Clear Mandate is also the dam of Full Mandate, the sire of Ron The Greek. Bottom line: Strong Mandate has both a great pedigree and a great distance pedigree.
On a weekend that features the reigning Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, and the glorious opening weekend of the Keeneland fall meet, the match-up between the Big Three in the Champagne might be the most intoxicating event of all.