Handicapping a Promising Champagne Field

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The $500,000 Champagne S. (G1) at Belmont at the Big A is a fascinating race from a historical perspective.

The one-mile event has long ranked among the nation's most prestigious prizes for juveniles, and through the years it's produced 23 Kentucky Derby winners. Triple Crown champions Count Fleet, Omaha, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed all contested the Champagne, as did the great Spectacular Bid.

In the years since Spectacular Bid completed the Champagne/Kentucky Derby double in 1978-79, only two horses—Sea Hero (1992-93) and Super Saver (2009-10)—have used the Champagne as a springboard to Derby glory, and only Sea Hero managed to win both races. The Champagne still cranks out Derby starters with regularity (and offers Derby qualifying points on a 10-4-3-2-1 basis to the top five finishers), but Derby champions are more likely to be found elsewhere.

But the Derby aside, the Champagne is a terrific source of high-class racehorses. Winners since 2010 include champions Uncle Mo, Shanghai Bobby, and Jackie's Warrior plus Belmont S. (G1) winners Union Rags and Tiz the Law. Beaten Champagne runners during the same timeframe include champions Good Magic and Honor Code, multiple Grade 1 winners Alpha and Casa Creed, two-time Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) hero Goldencents, and Preakness S. (G1) runners-up Ride On Curlin and Midnight Bourbon.

All this is a long-winded way of saying Saturday's renewal of the Champagne is well worth watching. The race has drawn half a dozen entries, and several appear capable of developing into graded stakes stars.

At first glance, it's tempting to side with #6 Gulfport. The son of Uncle Mo was sensational during the spring and early summer at Churchill Downs, dominating his debut by seven lengths before trouncing the Bashford Manor S. by 12 1/4 lengths.

But things haven't gone as well for Gulfport in recent starts. He had to steady hard between rivals around the turn of the Saratoga Special S. (G2) and wound up finishing second by 3 1/4 lengths. Then Gulfport was beaten fairly and squarely in the Hopeful S. (G1) at Saratoga, weakening to finish second by three lengths after carving out the pace over a sloppy track.

Gulfport obviously has talent, and it's common for Hopeful starters to come back and win the Champagne—Shanghai Bobby (2012), Practical Joke (2016), Firenze Fire (2017), and Jackie's Warrior (2020) have all done so in the last decade. But it's worth noting Firenze Fire is the only Champagne winner in the last 13 years to enter off a defeat.

Four of the 2022 Champagne contenders enter in winning form. One of the most accomplished is #1 Andiamo a Firenze, a romping 5 1/2-length winner of the Funny Cide S. sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs at Saratoga last month. Andiamoa a Firenze is 2-for-2 against New York-bred rivals and 0-for-1 against unrestricted competition, coming home third in the Sanford S. (G3) at Saratoga... but he's also 2-for-2 over wet tracks and 0-for-1 over dry tracks, so the rainy weather forecast for Saturday is bound to be a positive for this promising son of Speightstown.

#2 Top Recruit has also shown winning form against stakes competition, flashing speed and unwavering tenacity to win the seven-furlong Ellis Park Juvenile S. by a head over stretch-running Curly Jack, with the rest of the field 14 3/4 lengths behind. If the name Curly Jack sounds familiar, that's because he came back to win the Iroquois S. (G3) on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, flattering the form of Top Recruit.

But the most exciting horse entered in the Champagne might be #3 Verifying. From a pedigree perspective, this $775,000 yearling acquisition is cut out to be a champion. Sire Justify swept the 2018 Triple Crown and is off to a hot start at stud, while dam Diva Delite previously foaled Midnight Bisou, a champion who won 13 graded stakes (including five Grade 1s) over the course of her long and decorated career.

Verifying is bred to run long and improve with maturity, but he came to hand early enough to win his Aug. 27 debut sprinting six furlongs at Saratoga. The Brad Cox trainee led all the way to score by 1 3/4 lengths, earning promising speed figures of 85 (Beyer) and 97 (Brisnet). If Verifying improves while stretching out in distance (as his pedigree suggests he will), he can nab a Champagne victory under hot jockey Joel Rosario.


1st: Verifying
2nd: Andiamo a Firenze
3rd: Gulfport

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Champagne Stakes?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week! (Please note: older contest entries can be found here.)

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.

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