Breeders’ Cup Saturday: Another tall order for U.S. squad vs. Euros in Turf

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Wonder if Channel Maker will peer out from his black blinkers, survey the field for Saturday’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf and wonder where his old friend and foe Sadler’s Joy might be hanging out.

He won’t find Sadler’s Joy, a brave third in the Turf the last time it was run in Kentucky behind superstars Enable and Magical, but he will see a seriously formidable cast of nine opponents. Multiple Group 1 winner Magical leads the Europeans in the 12-furlong test, which also attracted Mogul, Tarnawa and Lord North from across the Atlantic and United and Red King from across the country.

Carrying his head high and looking like he wants to run off or drop jockey Manny Franco at any moment – or both – Channel Maker will set the pace in the Turf and go as far as he can. We’ll find out the answer to that question in about 2 1/2 minutes.

Head Case. Channel Maker stays straight and strong in Grade 1 turf marathon. Written for the Sept. 2 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.

Everyone knows the rules by now. Or at least they should. 

Channel Maker’s 34 starts provide the blueprint, if it’s fair to call it that for a horse like that, of how things work. How he wants it to work. Well, most of the time anyway. 

Particularly finicky and perhaps even sensitive – push or pull too hard and his head comes up – the 6-year-old gelding will pull himself and run rank between, beside or behind rivals. He seems most comfortable on the lead, but only when he breaks well and you don’t force it. 

The quirks go back to his 2-year-old season, when Danny Vella trained him at Woodbine and he won a small stakes as a maiden and finished third in the Grade 2 Summer Stakes there to earn a trip to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He pulled, tossed his head in the air and was rank into the first turn at Santa Anita Park before attending a quick pace and finishing seventh. 

Bill Mott took over one start into Channel Maker’s 3-year-old year, learned enough early and won the Canadian classic Breeders’ Stakes before trying him in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Grade 2 Twilight Derby and Grade 1 Hollywood Derby. Channel Maker didn’t win any of those races or the four to start his 4-year-old season before winning the Grade 2 Bowling Green in a dead-heat with Glorious Empire at Saratoga. He tossed his head there, too, and pulled for a half-mile before settling off the pace.

Mott called him “almost an overachiever” that day and continued to label the gelding that in Fasig-Tipton Stable Tours at the end of the 2018 and 2019 meets. 

Channel Maker overachieved again Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, smashing through the boggy inner turf course to win the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Stakes all the way on the lead. Manny Franco, two days before heading to Louisville for his Kentucky Derby ride on Tiz The Law, rode Channel Maker to his 5 3/4-length victory over Cross Border in the $500,000 Sword Dancer. 

Franco learned the lessons of Channel Maker’s quirks riding him to a close fourth in the Grade 1 Manhattan July 4 and to a third via disqualification in the Grade 2 Bowling Green. 

“He’s not an easy horse to ride,” Franco said of his second Grade 1 of the meet after Tiz The Law’s Travers Aug. 8. “We try to go to the lead but sometimes he doesn’t break good. Today we were able to make it and he was traveling the whole way fine and handled the soft ground really well.”

Franco gave Channel Maker a good warmup on the sloppy and sealed main track, pounded with rain a half hour before during the Grade 1 Forego. 

The skies threatened again before the Sword Dancer, guaranteed to be run on a saturated and soft course after rains early Saturday morning and then once the races started. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Saratoga County to expire at about post time for the Sword Dancer and as the seven runners were tacked up in the paddock the skies cleared and thunder subsided. 

Mott watched the warmup and race from the racing office and liked the way the 1 ½-mile Sword Dancer set up when Channel Maker wound up on the lead when Marzo, who opened up a big lead early before fading in the Bowling Green, didn’t go to the front under Ricardo Santana Jr. 

“We thought Marzo could be on the lead and we might be laying second, but the opportunity presented itself for him to be on the lead and the jockey accepted the opportunity,” Mott said. “Sometimes you make the right decision and it worked out.”

Channel Maker rolled along on the lead, clicking through the first half in :51.14 and the mile in 1:42.33. He led by a length after the mile and when Franco asked for a bit around the far turn Channel Maker responded. 

Channel Maker opened up by 2 lengths approaching the stretch the last time and drew off inside the final eighth while being wrapped up. The 8-1 sixth choice of seven won in 2:34.86, well off Awad’s course record 2:23.20 when he won the 1997 Sword Dancer but not surprising considering the moisture in the ground. Aquaphobia finished 3 1/2 lengths behind 3-1 favorite Cross Border to give trainer Mike Maker a 2-3 finish with Sadler’s Joy, last early and appearing to not favor the ground, fourth of seven as the second choice. 

The Sword Dancer gave Channel Maker, who races for Wachtel Stable, Gary Barber, R. A. Hill Stable and Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, his third Grade 1 victory along with the 2018 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and 2019 Man o’ War. He earned an automatic bid in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland Nov. 7, a race where he’s finished 11th and 12th the last two years. 

Mott, winning his fourth Sword Dancer dating back to his first in 1987 with Theatrical when it was run at Belmont, didn’t commit past the Oct. 3 Joe Hirsch. The prospect of soft ground might change his thinking. 

“That water gets very deep,” Mott said of the Breeders’ Cup. “We’ve tried it a couple times and it hasn’t worked out. You get a whole different group of horses. But who knows? There was a year at Keeneland where it was a bottomless ground and if that situation came up, maybe he would benefit from it.”