Several questions should be answered in the $500,000 Foxwoods Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park Oct. 5, mainly who are the potential superstars in the nine-horse field, if any?
A victory by Strong Mandate, winner of the Hopeful Stakes by 9 ¾ lengths, would make the son of Tiznow -- Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister, a standout in the 2-year-old division and the big favorite for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park Nov. 2.
But there are a pair of exciting last-out maiden winners looking to bolster their reputation by knocking off the classier and more experienced favorite.
One of those youngsters, the Shug McGaughey-trained Honor Code, was the talk of Saratoga after he came from the clouds with a spectacular stretch run up the inside to win going away by 4 ½ lengths. To demonstrate just how impressive this performance was, Honor Code came from 22 lengths back nearing the head of the stretch, closing his final eighth in :11 ⅘. His time for the seven furlongs was a full second faster than the other division, won by the Nick Zito-trained Grand Arrival, who scored by 6 ¼ lengths. Grand Arrival also is coming back in the Champagne.
Honor Code is owned in partnership by Lane's End Racing and the colt's breeder, Dell Ridge Farm.
The other highly-touted 2-year-old in the Hopeful is the Coolmore-owned colt Havana, who won his only start by 2 ¾ lengths going 5 ½ furlongs at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 23. Although it's a huge jump from a 5 ½-furlong maiden race to the one-mile Champagne, Havana's Beyer figure of 102 was 13 points higher than Honor Code and 17 points better than Strong Mandate.
Havana is trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Michael Tabor, John Magnier, and Derrick Smith.
But Havana and Honor Code are going to have to turn in exceptional performances to beat Strong Mandate, the D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt owned by Robert Baker and William L. Mack. After breaking his maiden at Saratoga by 4 ½ lengths, Strong Mandate made a shambles of the prestigious Hopeful Stakes by drawing away to a resounding victory in the slop.
"He certainly moved forward off his maiden win when he ran in the Hopeful," Lukas said. "You don't see big horses like this accelerate like he did in the Hopeful, and so easily. He's just been more focused and stronger; he's going in the right direction. He's had a great month since the Hopeful."
It must be said that Honor Code's victory also was in the slop, so both colts will see if they can duplicate their herculean efforts on a fast track.
"It's a tall order going from a maiden to a grade I, but he's been doing very well," McGaughey said of Honor Code, a son of A.P. Indy out of Serena's Cat. He breezed a half-mile in a sharp :47.99 Sept. 29 at Belmont. "He's training well, everything is good, and we're excited about running him. We'll see what happens."
Jose Ortiz will be back aboard Strong Mandate, who drew well in post 7, outside his two main adversaries. Honor Code, who will break from post 5, will have Javier Castellano aboard, replacing John Velazquez, who has another engagement at Keeneland on Horse of the Year Wise Dan.
Velazquez also rode Havana in his debut, and has been replaced by Irad Ortiz Jr. Breaking from post 3 and with not much speed inside him, it is expected that Havana will go right to the lead, especially after setting blazing fractions in his only start.
If any of these three brilliant colts is going to be beaten, it could be by Grand Arrival, ridden by Rosie Napravnik, who won last year's Champagne aboard Shanghai Bobby. But the son of Harlan's Holiday needs to make significant improvement.
Pletcher also has entered Monmouth Park maiden winner Intense Holiday, who has been entered in the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity Stakes at Keeneland. Chris DeCarlo has been named to ride at both tracks. The son of Harlan's Holiday, owned by Starlight Racing, owner of Shanghai Bobby, broke his maiden by 6 ¼ lengths under Napravnik Aug. 31. He will either break from the far outside at Belmont or from the rail at Keeneland.
Also in the field is Casiguapo, second in the Hopeful after breaking his maiden at Calder Race Course by 11 lengths. The son of Sightseeing, trained by Mario Morales, could be a live longshot for the exotics based on his last two races. He breaks from the rail with Luis Saez aboard.
Also entered are Ride On Curlin, a solid fourth in the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs; Debt Ceiling, a Laurel Park invader who is coming off a five-length score in the restricted First State Stakes at Delaware Park; and Long On Value, who floundered on the sloppy track in the Hopeful, finishing a well-beaten sixth, but was a winner of all three of his starts prior to that, including a pair of small stakes at Delaware and Colonial Downs.The son of Value Plus was turned over to Bill Mott prior to the Hopeful.