One week after his master class aboard Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez engineered another frontrunning upset. This time, Velazquez showed his turf skills with 8-1 Channel Cat in Saturday’s $700,000 Man o’ War S. (G1) at Belmont Park. Like the brave Derby winner, Channel Cat was in the grasp of a rival in the stretch – here 3-2 favorite Gufo – but the Jack Sisterson veteran dug in to prevail.
The Calumet Farm homebred had not been put on the lead since his last win, in the 2019 Bowling Green (G2) at Saratoga. Allowing Channel Cat to use his speed throughout paid dividends, despite a fast beginning that appeared a bit too bold to last the 1 3/8-mile trip.
That opening quarter in :22.69 was a consequence of Channel Cat’s tussle with Field Pass, whose head was in front at the first call. But Channel Cat leveraged his inside position to take control by the clubhouse turn, and Field Pass deferred.
Velazquez then nursed his mount through splits of :47.53, 1:12.45, and 1:37.49 on the good inner turf. He asked Channel Cat to ratchet up the tempo again swinging for home. Reaching the 1 1/4-mile mark in 2:01.45, the son of English Channel established a 1 1/2-length separation by midstretch. Ziyad briefly ranged into contention, while Moon Over Miami made more persistent headway on the inside.
Gufo, who had been anchored in his usual spot near the back, lengthened once in the clear and soon emerged as the primary danger. Drawing alongside Channel Cat, the favorite looked poised to snatch victory in the shadow of the post.
But Channel Cat, with ears pinned back in a display of ferocious determination, stretched to force his nose in front on the wire. The six-year-old clocked 2:13.34 and rewarded his backers with $18.40.
Gufo lost no luster in his four-year-old debut, particularly since he was conceding the winner six pounds as the 124-pound highweight. Another neck back in third was Moon Over Miami, followed by Shamrocket; So High; Ziyad; the ex-Ballydoyle Sovereign, who failed to factor in his stateside debut; and Field Pass.
Sisterson revealed what literally kept him up overnight.
“I left it (tactics) in Johnny Velazquez’s hands. I told him last weekend (turning the Kentucky Oaks [G1]/Derby double) was pretty incredible. I didn’t sleep last night. I wasn’t nervous about Channel Cat, I was nervous about letting John Velazquez down because I didn’t want to ruin last weekend’s celebrations.”
“I didn’t think we went that fast,” Velazquez said. “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.”
Gufo’s trainer, Christophe Clement, cited his impost as a factor, and already spoke of a rematch in the June 5 Manhattan (G1) on Belmont Day.
“Whenever you get beat first race off the layoff like that with such a good race, it’s disappointing because I love the horse,” Clement said. “Especially considering we were giving six pounds to the winner. But I tip my hat to the winner, he ran a good race. Gufo will improve from the race. We’ll go to the Manhattan and just hope we don’t have to give six pounds to everyone else and go from there.”
Sisterson, who’d only taken charge of Channel Cat four starts ago, observed that his second in the April 17 Elkhorn (G2) was a fine effort off a freshening.
“He was coming into the race in great shape,” his trainer said. “He ran a great race in the Elkhorn off the layoff and finished up good, closing into fast fractions.”
Channel Cat’s resume now reads 25-5-3-5, and he’s approaching millionaire status with earnings of $998,522. Previously in the care of incoming Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, the chestnut won the 2018 Dueling Grounds Derby and Bald Eagle Derby. During that sophomore campaign, he also finished third in the Pennine Ridge (G3) and fourth in the Belmont Derby (G1). Channel Cat’s lone victory of 2019 came in the aforementioned Bowling Green, but he picked up minor awards in the Sword Dancer (G1), United Nations (G1), and Ft. Lauderdale (G2).
Sidelined after a fourth in the 2020 Pan American (G2), Channel Cat was a comeback fifth in the Dec. 12 renewal of the Ft. Lauderdale, his debut for Sisterson. He was fifth again in the Jan. 23 W.L. McKnight (G3) but signaled a return to his best in the Elkhorn.
“Thanks to Channel Cat and the staff back at the barn, who do all the hard work to win a Grade 1,” Sisterson graciously said, also praising Calumet manager Eddie Kane.
“I don’t take any credit for this. It’s all due to the people behind the scenes that people don’t see.
“It’s nice to win a race for the owner (Brad Kelley). He’s so passionate and supportive of the sport.”
Channel Cat is out of the Kitten’s Joy mare Carnival Kitten, a half-sister to multiple stakes winner and Irish Group 1-placed Red Moloney. Further back, this is the family of 1986 Washington D.C. International (G1) hero Lieutenant’s Lark and multiple Grade 3 victor Dove Hunt.