10/03/2013 2:43PM

Belmont Park: Lukas looking for Strong Mandate to pop in Champagne

Barbara D. Livingston
Hopefull winner Strong Mandate meets eight rivals in the Champagne, a Win and You're In race for the BC Juvenile.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Thinking about the potential of Strong Mandate keeps trainer D. Wayne Lukas up at night. It probably has created some restless nights for the trainers who will send horses out against him in Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.

Lukas has trained five winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – three of whom have gone on to be named champion 2-year-old – and he ranks Strong Mandate right up there with any of them.

“I don’t want to say he’s the best ever, but he could be,” Lukas said Thursday morning.

Strong Mandate, the 9 3/4-length winner of the Grade 1 Hopeful last out at Saratoga, will try to provide more evidence of that while stamping himself the favorite for next month’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita when he meets eight rivals in the Champagne, which offers a fees-paid berth into the Juvenile.

Strong Mandate, a son of Tiznow owned by longtime Lukas clients Robert Baker and William Mack, will face a group that includes debut winners Honor Code and Havana, the two-time graded stakes winner Debt Ceiling, the highly regarded Ride On Curlin, and Hopeful runner-up Casiguapo.

After finishing fifth in his debut, a race Lukas said he was using as an educational experience, Strong Mandate, with blinkers added, won his maiden by 4 1/2 lengths on Aug. 17 before coming back 15 days later to win the Grade 1 Hopeful over a muddy track.

“He’s got that efficiency of motion that I like, he’s got that acceleration,” Lukas said. “When you watch that Hopeful, you don’t see him surge ahead, you see him glide away from them.”

Jose Ortiz will ride Strong Mandate from post 7.

Honor Code, a son of A.P. Indy, rallied from 22 lengths back to win his debut going seven furlongs in the slop at Saratoga on Aug. 31. Trainer Shug McGaughey likes the potential setup for his horse in this race, with speed horses like Havana and Ride On Curlin in the field.

“There’s a little speed in there, which will help us,” McGaughey said. “It’s a big order to go from a maiden race to a Grade 1. [Strong Mandate] is definitely a nice horse, [Debt Ceiling] is a nice horse. I’m looking forward to running him. All the T’s are crossed.”

Javier Castellano rides Honor Code from post 5.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has won four runnings of the Champagne, including in 2010 with Uncle Mo, a horse coming off a monster debut performance at Saratoga. Havana, a son of Dunkirk, won his 5 1/2-furlong debut by 2 3/4 lengths at Saratoga on Aug. 23, earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest of any juvenile this year. Pletcher doesn’t think stretching out from 5 1/2 furlongs to a mile will be an issue for Havana.

“He’s not one of those horses that seems desperate for the wire in any of his works or in his race,” said Pletcher, who also won last year’s Champagne with Shanghai Bobby. “Only one way to find out for sure. We’ve liked what we’ve seen.”

Irad Ortiz, who has won a pair of graded stakes for Pletcher, has picked up the mount on Havana.

Ride On Curlin, a son of Curlin, won his second start by 7 1/4 lengths at Ellis Park, earning a 91 Beyer. He missed some training time and the Prairie Meadows Juvenile due to a shin injury. Off a two-month layoff, he finished fourth as the favorite in the Grade 3 Iroquois at Churchill Downs on Sept. 7.

“He moved forward off that race instead of going backwards,” said trainer Bill Gowan. “He came out of it like he’s supposed to.”

Casiguapo won a maiden race by 11 lengths at Calder before finishing second in the Hopeful. He has worked well twice at Belmont in the last few weeks.

Debt Ceiling has won 4 of 5 starts, including three sprint stakes, and will stretch out to a mile. Grand Arrival, trained by five-time Champagne winner Nick Zito, won a maiden race in the slop at Saratoga on the same day Honor Code won. His time was a second slower than Honor Code’s. Intense Holiday, another Pletcher trainee, completes the field.