10/05/2013 6:50PM

Belmont Park: Havana holds on to win Champagne Stakes

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Tom Keyser
Havana (right), with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard, wins the Champagne Stakes by a neck over Honor Code.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Trainer Todd Pletcher continued his mastery of the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes, and he hopes to continue his recent string of success in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in four weeks.

Havana, stretching out from a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Saratoga to a one-mile stakes against a quality field of 2-year-olds, held off a late charge from Honor Code to win the $500,000 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park by a neck. The win earned Havana a fees-paid berth to the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.

It was the fifth win in the Champagne and the third in the last four years for Pletcher. His two most recent Champagne winners, Shanghai Bobby (2012) and Uncle Mo (2010), went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and be crowned champion 2-year-old.

Pletcher said Havana definitely will go on to the Juvenile, a race in which he also might run We Miss Artie, who won Saturday’s Grade 1 Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, another Win and You’re In race.

Havana, a son of Dunkirk, had earned the highest Beyer Speed Figure (102) of any juvenile this year when he won at Saratoga on Aug. 23. In the Champagne, he was going up against Strong Mandate, who won the Grade 1 Hopeful by nearly 10 lengths, and Honor Code, a good-looking maiden winner going seven furlongs at Saratoga.

In the Champagne, Havana broke alertly under Irad Ortiz Jr., who said he had to use his horse a little bit early to hold his position. He wound up dueling with Debt Ceiling through a half-mile in 45.54 seconds.

At the five-sixteenths pole, Debt Ceiling stopped, and Havana found himself with a three-length lead that he maintained into the stretch.

Meanwhile, Ride On Curlin, under Alex Solis, and Honor Code, under Javier Castellano, were at the back of the pack and were moving in tandem approaching the quarter pole.

Ride On Curlin was inside of Honor Code and spun him eight wide into the stretch.

As Havana began to tire, Honor Code was outfinishing Ride On Curlin but couldn’t catch Havana, who covered the mile in 1:35.81 and returned $7.20.

Honor Code finished 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Ride On Curlin, who was followed by Casiguapo, Intense Holiday, Long On Value, Strong Mandate, and Grand Arrival. Debt Ceiling was eased.

“He found himself suddenly three in front at the quarter pole, and I could see [Honor Code] revving up,” Pletcher said. “I knew he had a big run from Saratoga. I was hoping we’d have enough to hold on.

“We knew we were asking a lot of him, but we were doing it because we liked him a lot,” Pletcher added.

Ortiz said Havana got tired, but “because I had to use him early.”

Honor Code had won his maiden race from 22 lengths off the pace in the slop. He was about eight lengths off the pace Saturday before coming with a furious finish.

“I thought it was an awfully big effort for a horse of his type that is just learning and is kind of lazy the first part of it until you do ask him,” Shug McGaughey, the trainer of Honor Code, said. “Once we get him going around two turns and a little bit more racing, he’ll get himself a little more adapted into the race and go from there. I don’t want to change his style of running if that’s what he wants to do.”

McGaughey said he would leave the decision about running in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile up to the owners, but he offered the Grade 2 Remsen, a two-turn 1 1/8-mile race at Aqueduct on Nov. 30, as an option.

Strong Mandate, who broke on top, finished seventh, with no plausible excuse. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said jockey Jose Ortiz told him he didn’t handle Belmont as well as he did Saratoga. Lukas added, “I’m grasping at straws here a little bit. I don’t really have the answer.”

Lukas said Strong Mandate would “definitely” go to the Breeders’ Cup.

“He’s too good a horse not to,” Lukas said.