A clear early lead and a liking for a turf course softened by an afternoon thunderstorm was a recipe for success for Channel Maker in the $500,000, Grade 1 Sword Dancer Stakes at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 29.
The 6-year-old English Channel gelding went to the lead under Manny Franco and was never challenged in an emphatic 5 3/4-length victory. Cross Border ran second, followed by stablemate and third-place finisher Aquaphobia. Sadler’s Joy finished fourth.
The Bill Mott-trained winner, owned by Wachtel Stable, Gary Barber, R. A. Hill Stable, and Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, raced 1 1/2 miles on a soft turf course in 2:34.86. He paid $18.
Franco employed an aggressive style that may have persuaded rival jockeys not to engage Channel Maker early. Once they took back, seeing him and his mount intent on the lead, the pace slowed from a half-mile in :51.14 to three-quarters in 1:17.27 and a mile in 1:42.33.
“I made the lead and tried to open up to let them know I wanted to go and they let me go. It worked out good for me,” said Franco, who next week will pilot favored Tiz the Law in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs.
The Sword Dancer was a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race for the Nov. 7 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland. Prior starts in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 2018-’19 resulted in rear-half finishes, leaving Mott to believe his trainee might need his preferred soft-turf condition to keep up.
“That water gets very deep. We’ve tried it a couple times and it hasn’t worked out with him. You get a whole different group of horses,” he said. “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.”
The Hall of Fame trainer won his fourth Sword Dancer and his first since Broadway Flyer in 1996. His other winners were Fraise (1992) and Theatrical (IRE) (1987).
Two of the gelding’s owners, Randy Hill and Dean Reeves, expressed their elation with Saturday’s win. They commended Franco for his ride and felt their horse relished the give in the ground.
“What people didn’t realize is that he loves soft ground,” Hill said. “He was 3-for-4 on a soft turf and today is four out of five. I thought it was a spectacular run by the horse.”
The Sword Dancer was the fourth graded stakes victory for Channel Maker following previous victories in the Bowling Green Stakes and Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes in 2018 and the Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes last year. The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic victory also came on soft turf when he was able to control the pace.
Bred in Canada by Tall Oaks Farm, Channel Maker is one of three black-type winners out of the stakes-winning Horse Chestnut mare In Return, the others being Court Return and Canadian champion Johnny Bear. The latter won back-to-back runnings of Northern Dancer Turf Stakes in 2017-’18.