(Photo: Calumet Farm's Channel Cat, on the rail under Luis Saez, nipped Cullum Road to win the $400,000 Exacta Systems Dueling Grounds Derby. Reed Palmer Photography)
Until running four horses this meet, trainer Todd Pletcher hadn’t run a horse at Kentucky Downs since 2014 and hadn’t won a race since 2010.
“Is that all it’s been?” Pletcher joked when told he won his first race at the track in eight years.
Not to be outdone by a former assistant trainer, Pletcher picked a fortuitous time to get a horse back in the winner's circle, sending out Channel Cat to victory in the 1 5/16-mile, $400,000 Exacta Systems Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs on Wednesday.
Just one race earlier, Jonathan Thomas, who's been on his own for about a year and a half after working for Pletcher, made his training debut at Kentucky Downs and won the $300,000 Fifth Third Insurance Dueling Grounds Oaks with Osare. The Derby is for 3-year-olds; the Oaks is for 3-year-old fillies.
Although each man has one win at the meet, you might say Thomas is one-up on Pletcher. Channel Cat was timed in 2:15.51, about a half-second slower than Osare's time in the Dueling Grounds Oaks.
Over the years, Pletcher, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner, has had off-and-on contact with the Franklin, Ky. track. He won the 2009 training title at Kentucky Downs with five wins from eight starts when purses were significantly smaller than they are today; went 1 for 3 in 2010, was away for three years; and won once from three starts in 2014. After another three-year hiatus, Pletcher was victorious in today's Dueling Grounds Derby with his fourth starter of the meet.
Channel Cat, the 5-2 second choice ridden by Luis Saez, was never worse than fourth or more than two lengths behind the leader. Cullum Road came from eighth before hooking Channel Cat in upper stretch for a scintillating duel to the wire.
New York based-jockey Luis Saez was riding at Kentucky Downs for the first time, winning on Channel Cat in his second mount.
“He likes to be covered up, like fourth or fifth,” Saez said. “But he broke so sharp and the pace was slow. So I just tried to wait for the moment to let him run, and he just took me there. He’s a really fighting horse. So when I saw the other horse came up alongside, I came close to him and he did the rest.”
“I knew he was a gutsy horse anyway,” said Amelia Green, Pletcher’s assistant at Kentucky Downs. "So I thought in my mind that he’d hold on, but it was good to see that he did.”
Those two finished 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Captivating Moon, who was 1 1/4 length ahead of favored Bandua at the finish line.
“I’d seen the race before, and that filly went wire to wire,” Pletcher, who watched from the Keeneland sales, said of Dueling Grounds Oaks winner Osare. “So I was happy to see him in a good tactical position early. It’s a little bit hard to gauge exactly where you are watching races at Kentucky Downs on TV. But it looked like he was always traveling pretty well and handling the course. The fact that he was involved gave me confidence that he was handling it. So that part was good. Then it looked like the Three Diamonds horse (Cullum Road) had some momentum, but he fought back and was very game.”
Cullum Road’s connections were to the point.
“He ran a good race. I just got beat,” said jockey Tyler Gaffalione.
“Tough beat,” Maker said. “Not much else to say.”
Jailhouse Kitten, early pacesetter Fred'stwirlincandy, Zero Gravity, Reride, Morning Stride and Zanesville rounded out the order of finish. Calumet Farm had both the winner and the beaten favorite in Bandua, who is trained by Irish-based Dermot Weld.
Channel Cat is a son of English Channel, a Breeders' Cup Turf winner and 2007 Eclipse Award champion grass horse. English Channel was also trained by Pletcher and later purchased as a stallion prospect by Simpson County native Brad Kelley's Calumet Farm. Kelley bred English Channel to his mare Carnival Kitten, who is by another champion, Kitten's Joy, the 2004 Eclipse Award champion grass horse.
It all meant that Channel Cat was born to go really long on turf, with both English Channel and Kitten’s Joy excelling at 1 1/2 miles.
“That’s why I ran him against older horses last time,” Pletcher said, referring to a second in a Saratoga allowance race at 1 3/8 miles. “I’d been trying to get him stretched out. There are very limited opportunities for 3-year-olds going anything beyond a mile and an eighth on grass. He ran a very respectable fourth in the Belmont Derby, and we always felt that he’s the kind who will get better when he gets older.
“When I saw this race on the calendar, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is perfect for this horse.’”
Winning for Calumet Farm, not only an icon in the sport but a Kentucky Downs sponsor who loves running at the track, was “great,” Pletcher said. “And actually I was at Calumet today and saw English Channel this morning, so it was kind of cool.”
It was Channel Cat's third win from 11 starts with two pair of seconds and thirds. Although the Dueling Grounds Derby was his first stakes win, Channel Cat has seen deep competition recently, finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby in July, third in the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge in June and sixth in the Grade 2 American Turf at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day.
With winnings of $235,600 from the victory, Channel Cat has pocketed $431,792 in his career.
“I felt like he was training very well,” Pletcher said of the race. “I thought his last couple of breezes leading into it indicated to us that he was sitting on a good race. So we were very optimistic that he’d run well. Your biggest concern is just that some horses seem to maybe appreciate that undulating ground. But he seemed to be traveling well throughout.”