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Aaron previews the 2023 Champagne Stakes (G1) from Belmont at the Big A, then gives his top picks & long shots from this “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Can the Todd Pletcher-trained Fierceness pop off with an effort as impressive as his debut victory at Saratoga? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Repole Stable’s Fierceness will strive to parlay an astonishing debut performance into Grade 1 company in the 152nd running of Saturday’s $500,000 Champagne for juveniles going a one-turn mile at Belmont at the Big A.
The Champagne is a “Win And You’re In” qualifying event for the Grade 1, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on November 3 at Santa Anita Park. The Champagne is also a qualifier for the next year’s Grade 1 Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs, offering the top-five finishers points on a 10-5-3-2-1 scale.
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Fierceness demonstrated his talent with a gate-to-wire debut score on August 25 going six furlongs at Saratoga Race Course, where he built on his advantage throughout and was geared down to an 11 1/4-length score in a final time of 1:09.56 over and muddy and sealed main track. The son of second crop sire City of Light produced a 95 Beyer Speed Figure for the win, which is tied for the third fastest figure by a 2-year-old this year.
A victory would provide Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher with a record-extending seventh Champagne victory. Three of Pletcher’s previous winners also arrived at their respective coups off a first-out graduation with Uncle Mo , Havana  and Daredevil  all securing Champagne wins off debut victories.
“He’s very good and a pleasure to train. He’s got a great disposition,” said Pletcher. “He’ll go easy if you want him to, fast if you want him to. He’s got a great temperament. He’s always been that way. He’s very unassuming and is always going about his business until we asked him to pick it up one day and it was like, ‘Wow, this horse can run.’ I don’t think slop is the reason he ran so well.”
A second generation Kentucky homebred, Fierceness is out of the Pletcher and Repole campaigned Stay Thirsty mare Nonna Bella, whose Grade 1-placed dam Nonna Mia, by Empire Maker, produced Grade 1-winner and producer Outwork.
Irad Ortiz, Jr. will pilot Fierceness from post 6 in pursuit of his third Champagne win.
After capturing previous editions with Practical Joke  and Complexity , trainer Chad Brown and owner Klaravich Stables will attempt their third collaborative Champagne conquest with second-out maiden winner General Partner [post 4, Manny Franco].
One of two Champagne contestants by Speightstown, the chestnut colt posted a frontrunning score going seven furlongs on September 2 at Saratoga, garnering a 92 Beyer following a fourth-place finish going six furlongs on debut.
General Partner remained at Saratoga following the meet and recently breezed an easy half-mile in 50 seconds flat over the Oklahoma training track on Friday.
“He’s doing super and I’m very pleased with this horse,” said Brown. “He’s at Belmont now and he had his final piece of work at Saratoga – we kept him there and he’s been happy there. I’m curious how he’s going to step up going a mile. He fits. It’s going to be a solid race with some promising young colts in this race like there normally is every year. We’re just happy to have one of them. This horse looks pretty good in the mornings. We’ll see.”
Bred in Kentucky by Ken and Sarah Ramsey and the Speightstown Syndicate, General Partner is out of the multiple black type producing Distorted Humor mare Fleeting Humor. He was acquired for $250,000 as a weanling at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton November Sale.
Trainer Brad Cox has entered a pair of formidable contenders in Grade 1 Hopeful runner-up Timberlake [post 3, Florent Geroux] – who is cross-entered in Saturday’s Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland – and Calumet Farm’s Air Cav [post 1, Dylan Davis].
Owned by WinStar Farm and Siena Farm, Timberlake said ‘bye, bye, bye,’ to his competition at second asking when powering home a 9 1/4-length winner going seven furlongs on July 21 at Ellis Park against eventual graded stakes winner West Saratoga. The effort garnered a career-high 87 Beyer.
Timberlake, the favorite in all three of his starts, sat in behind horses from fourth down the backstretch of the Hopeful, tipped one path wide in upper stretch while appearing poised for victory, but could not fend off the late rallying 54-1 longshot Nutella Fella, who won by 1 1/2 lengths. Timberlake will make an equipment change and race with blinkers off.
Air Cav, by freshman sire Mitole, was a debut winner going 5 1/2 furlongs on August 30 at Horseshoe Indianapolis.
The chestnut colt settled to the outside of runners in third, before taking command around the far turn and fighting through the stretch with a stubborn Cats by Five to his inside, ultimately winning by a neck.
Barry K. Schwartz’s homebred El Grande O [post 5, Kendrick Carmouche] will attempt to be the first New York-bred to win the Champagne since Tiz the Law in 2019. The Linda Rice-trained Take Charge Indy dark bay enters from just under two week’s rest after winning the state-bred Bertram F. Bongard on September 24 going seven furlongs over a local sloppy and sealed main track.
A third-out maiden winner on the grass, he was second in the off-the-turf Skidmore on August 18 against open company at Saratoga before facing state-breds in the Spa’s Funny Cide presented by Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital on August 27 and finishing second beaten a head.
Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen will send out Mike McCarty’s Gold Sweep [post 7, Jose Lezcano], who will sport blinkers in attempt to regain his luster following a sixth in the Hopeful.
The Speightstown chestnut found the winner’s circle for the first time with an authoritative score in Belmont Park’s 5 1/2-furlong Tremont on June 11, winning by nine lengths. He was then a troubled second in the Grade 3 Sanford on July 15 at Saratoga, where he stumbled at the start but managed to rally late and finish 2 1/4 lengths behind the victorious Yo Yo Candy.
Eduardo Soto’s Dancing Groom [post 2, Trevor McCarthy] has already displayed one-mile capabilities after winning at the Champagne distance in an off-the-turf maiden event on August 19 at Saratoga.
Trained by Antonio Sano, the chestnut son of first crop sire Vino Rosso was sixth on debut before relishing added ground and capturing his second lifetime start by five lengths.
Completing the field is Built Wright Stable’s Sweet Soddy J [post 8, Jose Gomez], who enters from a third-place finish in the 6 1/2-furlong Fitz Dixon, Jr. Memorial on September 26 over the Presque Isle Downs synthetic.
The chestnut Bee Jersey gelding is trained by Raymond Ginter, Jr.
Belmont at the Big A
The Champagne, carded as Race 8, is one of six graded stakes carded for Saturday’s program, which also includes its female counterpart race – the Grade 1, $400,000 Frizette, which offers “Win And You’re In” status for the Grade 1, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies on November 3 at Santa Anita.
The card also will feature a rescheduled edition of the Grade 1, $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, the Grade 3, $500,000 Jockey Club Derby Invitational, the Grade 3, $200,000 Belmont Turf Sprint, and the Grade 3, $200,000 Fasig-Tipton Waya. First post is 12:05 p.m. Eastern.
Inaugurated in 1867, the Champagne has been a prominent event for juveniles for over a century and a half having seen a handful of Kentucky Derby winners score in the race during their 2-year-old season dating all the way back to Azra in 1891.
Riva Ridge , Foolish Pleasure , Spectacular Bid  as well as Triple Crown winners Count Fleet  and Seattle Slew  won the Champagne before becoming household names. Secretariat won the 1972 Champagne but was disqualified for interference with Stop the Music, who was subsequently awarded the victory.
The Champagne has also been used as a steppingstone to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Fly So Free , Timber Country , War Pass , Uncle Mo  and Shanghai Bobby  notching the Champagne-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile double.
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