The Grade 1 Champagne Stakes predates the Kentucky Derby by eight years. In fact, the one mile juvenile test that sets the early bar for Derby prospects appeared only two years after the Civil War ended.

Gunite showed off his versatility winning the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga last month. He comes with 4/1 morning-line value for Saturday’s Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. (Image: Sarah Andrew)

Derby preps have to get their momentum somewhere, which is where the Champagne pours forth. Saturday’s test from Belmont Park, which dates to 1867, isn’t the first Derby prep on the 2022 schedule. But along with Friday’s American Pharoah on Santa Anita Park’s opening day, it brings some of the contenders into sharper focus.

And when you look at the Champagne’s winner’s roll, you see what could entail from that sharper focus.There’s Kentucky Derby winners such as Azra (1891), Riva Ridge (1971), Foolish Pleasure (1974), and Spectacular Bid (1978). Need Triple Crown validation? How about Count Fleet (1942) and Seattle Slew (1976).

This list doesn’t include Secretariat, who won the 1972 Champagne, but was disqualified for interference. Nor does it include the likes of Buckpasser (1965), Alydar (1977), Easy Goer (1988), Timber Country (1994), Uncle Mo (2010), Shanghai Bobby (2012) and Tiz the Law (2019).

Champagne wishes make for Breeders’ Cup dreams

Yes, winning the Champagne never hurts the resume. It also helps travel plans to California for the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, since the Champagne is a “Win and You’re In” race for that event.

Your 9/5 morning-line favorite for that Breeders’ Cup ticket is Jack Christopher, last seen dismantling a maiden field at Saratoga by nearly nine lengths. The Chad Brown trainee made it look easy in his debut, clocking a 92 Beyer Speed Figure and beating next-out winner Hoist the Gold

“Just off one race, he’s going to have to take another step forward, but he was so brilliant with his debut,” Brown told the New York Racing Association. “We’ve had horses have success here before doing that — (2018 winner) Complexity comes to mind. Off just one race, he ran very well in the Champagne and won.”

Jack Christopher stretches out from six furlongs to a mile for the Champagne, a variable Brown does not think will faze the son of Munnings.

Pletcher owns a six-pack of Champagne

“The way he’s training, I don’t think he’ll have any difficulty getting the mile,” Brown said. But it looks like it’s shaping up to be a really strong field of horses with experience and some other horses that broke their maiden and look good. He was certainly one of the most impressive maiden breakers at Saratoga, I would say.”

You can add Gunite (4/1) to that list. The son of 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner needed three tries to break his maiden, which he did by 1 1/4 lengths in a 12-horse cavalry charge at Churchill Downs in June. Two starts later, Gunite romped to a 5 3/4-length victory in the Grade 1 Hopeful on Saratoga’s closing day.

He’s the most experienced colt in the field, courtesy of trainer Steve Asmussen sending him out five previous times since his April 29 debut. That produced a 2-2-1 record and nearly $300,000 in earnings. Asmussen, meanwhile, won this race last year with Jackie’s Warrior.

“He’ll be the horse in the field with the most experience, so hopefully that does him well,” said Winchell Thoroughbreds racing and bloodstock advisor David Fiske.

Keep an eye on Wit’s start

That turns the focus to Todd Pletcher’s trio of Wit (2/1), My Prankster (5/2) and Commandperformance (10/1). Based on his early works, which included victories by a combined 14 lengths in his first two outings — along with Pletcher’s six Champagne victories — Wit figures to draw his share of money. But based on his troubled trip in the Hopeful brought to him by a poor start, Wit may not get as much money as he would have a month ago.

“He’s got learning experience in all three of his races,” Pletcher said. “He’s gotten well-accustomed to getting some dirt in his face and dealing with some traffic. We’re just hoping for a cleaner start. We tried to break well in his last race, he just grabbed himself a little bit and had to play catch-up from there. The track wasn’t kind to closers as well.”

My Prankster is also a member of the Impressive Maiden Breakers Club. He won his by 10 lengths at Saratoga in August. Even with Luis Saez gearing him down, the Into Mischief progeny still turned in a 92 Beyer in the 6 1/2-furlong trek.

My Prankster no joke with his speed

This came after My Prankster breezed four furlongs in 47 seconds in an Aug. 8 work at Saratoga. That was second of 114 working that distance that day.

“He’s not an overzealous work horse. If you hadn’t seen that gate work, you might not have expected the debut he had,” Pletcher said. “But he’s a pretty laid-back colt. It’s always a big stretch to go from a one-start maiden to a Grade 1 stake, but we’ve had some success doing that.”

Grade 1 Champagne Stakes/Belmont Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Wit, 2/1 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Todd Pletcher)
  2. My Prankster, 5/2 (Luis Saez/Todd Pletcher)
  3. Jack Christopher, 9/5 (Jose Ortiz/Chad Brown)
  4. Kavod, 50/1 (Charles Roberts/James Chapman)
  5. Gunite, 4/1 (Ricardo Santana Jr./Steve Asmussen)
  6. Commandperformance, 10/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Todd Pletcher)
The pick: Gunite. You could make a case for any of the aforementioned four and watching Jack Christopher, Wit or especially My Prankster win wouldn’t shock anyone. But Gunite is one of those colts who keeps improving every start and he has the tactical speed to run with any of the above. The experience factor can’t be overlooked either, since this is only the second race for Jack Christopher and My Prankster. Watch those two going forward.