The 6-year-old Canadian-bred gelding Channel Maker has long been a high-class turf performer, even winning a classic in his home country when claiming the 2017 Breeders’ Stakes.
But the veteran campaigner has resurrected his career since teaming up with jockey Manny Franco, and their perfect partnership was on full display in Saturday’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont Park. Conserving energy is important when racing 1 1/2 miles on grass, and for Channel Maker, the recipe for a comfortable trip is securing a clear early advantage.
In the past, Channel Maker has struggled when rating off the pace, losing 11 consecutive races between June 2019 and August 2020. But Franco understands how the Bill Mott trainee runs best with pacesetting tactics, a tendency Channel Maker first displayed when wiring the 2018 Joe Hirsch by 4 1/2 lengths.
“That’s the way he likes to run; he likes to go to the front,” explained Franco. “When he’s on the lead, he’s game. He’s much more comfortable and relaxed on the lead. When the other horses come to him, he just accelerates.”
Franco’s first front-running gambit aboard Channel Maker came in the Aug. 29 Sword Dancer (G1) at Saratoga, where they wired the field by 5 3/4 lengths over soft ground. Some might have considered the victory a fluke—a result of the testing going—but Channel Maker put those doubts to rest in the Joe Hirsch. Sent straight to the lead by Franco, Channel Maker carved out splits of :22.89, :49.44, and 1:14.45 over a firm turf course, then kicked on resolutely in the drive to score by 2 1/4 lengths.
Laccario rallied late to secure the runner-up spot over Sadler’s Joy, but neither was a match for Channel Maker, who required 2:25.99 to reclaim his Joe Hirsch title. Master Piece, Rockemperor, Cross Border, and Highland Sky completed the order of finish.
Channel Maker has already secured an automatic entry into the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) by virtue of his Sword Dancer triumph, and following the Joe Hirsch, Bill Mott indicated it’s a “forgone conclusion” that Channel Maker will head to the year-end championship.
Channel Maker wasn’t the only wire-to-wire turf stakes winner on Saturday at Belmont. In the 1 1/16-mile Pilgrim Stakes (G2) for 2-year-olds, 13-1 longshot Fire At Will went straight to the lead under jockey Kendrick Carmouche, then pulled away in the stretch to win by two lengths over the late-charging favorite Public Sector.
Trained by Mike Maker on behalf of Three Diamonds Farm, Fire At Will finished very fast off slow fractions of :25.58, :50.35, and 1:15.09, blazing the final five-sixteenths in :28.36. Previously victorious in the 7-furlong With Anticipation S. on dirt at Saratoga, Fire At Will is a stoutly-bred son of Declaration of War out of a mare by Kitten’s Joy, suggesting he has a bright future running long on turf.
The same can be said of the 3-year-old Gufo (likewise a son of Declaration of War), who unleashed a powerful turn-of-foot to win Saturday’s 1 1/4-mile Belmont Derby (G1) against fellow sophomores. Coming off a runner-up effort in the Saratoga Derby, Gufo settled in mid-pack early on behind fractions of :24.67, :50.61 and 1:15.56, which seemingly left the Christophe Clement trainee with too much ground to gain down the lane.
But by sprinting the final quarter-mile in approximately :22 3/5, Gufo was able to confidently sweep past the pace-tracking No Word and front-running Mo Ready to win by a length. With Junior Alvarado in the saddle, the Other Bend Stables runner reached the finish line in 2:02.25.
While the Breeders’ Cup Turf is an option for Gufo’s next start, Clement indicated the Nov. 28 Hollywood Derby (G1) against 3-year-olds at Del Mar would also be considered. Perhaps in 2021, racing fans will get an opportunity to see Channel Maker, Fire At Will, and Gufo square in a long-distance turf stakes. That would definitely be a race worth watching.