One week after piloting Medina Spirit to a gate-to-wire victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), jockey John Velazquez was once again flashing his Hall of Fame credentials in another well-known grade 1 stakes.
As masterful of a ride as Velazquez gave the Run for the Roses winner, he was equally superb on the front end May 8 under different, yet still important, conditions.
After sending Calumet Farm’s homebred Channel Cat out for the lead at the start of the $700,000 Man o’ War Stakes (G1T) and dueling through a curiously fast initial quarter-mile in :22.69 that raised eyebrows, Velazquez resurrected week-old memories of his prowess on the front end by piloting the son of English Channel to a narrow, nose victory over a fast-closing Gufo in the 1 3/8-mile test at Belmont Park.
“I didn’t think we went that fast. I knew we were going fast, but not quite :22 and change. I gave him loose reins and he was a happy horse up front. I was happy with the way that he was doing things. I felt (Gufo) coming when I was asking him to run,” Velazquez said.
A grade 1 stakes with the grand tradition of the Man o’ War is a likely source of pressure for most trainers, yet winning trainer Jack Sisterson admitted to feeling nervous for a different reason.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” Sisterson said. “I wasn’t nervous about Channel Cat, I was nervous about letting John Velazquez down. I didn’t want to ruin last weekend’s celebration, so thanks to Channel Cat for stepping up and doing all the hard work.”
The victory came on the heels of a strong second in the 1 1/2-mile Elkhorn Stakes (G2T) at Keeneland, where Channel Cat was fourth in the early stages and settled for second, 1 1/2 lengths behind Say the Word . Sisterson considered that race a sign that 6-year-old Channel Cat was returning to the form cycle that carried him to a win in the 2019 Bowling Green Stakes (G2T) for trainer Todd Pletcher.
“He was coming into the race in great shape,” said Sisterson, who is considering the June 5 $750,000 Resorts World Casino Manhattan Stakes (G1T) on the Belmont Stakes (G1) undercard or the July 17 United Nations Stakes (G1T) at Monmouth Park for Channel Cat’s next start. “He ran a great race in the Elkhorn off the layoff and finished up good, closing into fast fractions.
“Thanks to Channel Cat and the staff back at the barn, who do all the hard work to win a grade 1,” he added. “I don’t take any credit for this. It’s all due to the people behind the scenes that people don’t see.”
John Velazquez returns aboard Channel Cat after winning the Man o’ War Stakes
The win in 2:13.34 was the sixth in 26 starts for Channel Cat and pushed his earnings past the million mark to $1,373,522. He’s the first of four foals and the lone stakes winner for the Kitten’s Joy mare Carnival Kitten , whose youngest offspring is a 2-year-old Red Rocks colt. Carnival Kitten was bred to Speightstown for 2021.
After the blistering opening fraction, Channel Cat cruised along on a clear lead through fractions of :47.53, 1:12.45, and 1:37.49 on good turf. Sent off at 8-1 odds ($18.40), he led by 1 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole as Moon Over Miami moved up inside him and last year’s Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes (G1T) winner Gufo came flying into the picture from the outside. The wire popped up just in time for Velazquez and Channel Cat as they held off Otter Bend Stables’ Gufo by a nostril with Moon Over Miami a neck back in third.
“I’ve got to talk to (trainer Christophe Clement) about plastic surgery for this horse. Gufo needs a bigger nose,” said owner and co-breeder Stephen Cainelli, whose 4-year-old son of Declaration of War was third in the Hollywood Derby (G1T) by a head and a neck and lost the Saratoga Derby Invitational Stakes, a $500,000 affair, by a head.
For Clement, considering it was Gufo’s first start in more than five months since the Hollywood Derby and the 3-2 favorite gave six pounds to Channel Cat, there was some satisfaction in his colt’s performance. The 4-year-old was initially slow to pick up the leaders before coming with a hard charge down the lane.
“It was disappointing because I love the horse,” Clement said. “But I take my hat off. The winner ran a very good race. It’s OK. Gufo will improve off the race. Let’s go to the Manhattan, where we will not have to give away six pounds and we’ll go from there.”
Sovereign , winner of the 2019 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby (G1), was the 2-1 second choice in his United States debut for the Coolmore team and trainer Chad Brown, but broke slowly and never entered contention while finishing seventh in the field of eight.