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The main objective of any horse race revolves around winning.
Every now and then, though, a defeat can come with a rather satisfying consolation present.
Down the road, perhaps in November, maybe in May, what happened in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park on Saturday might be remembered for something other than the horse that crossed the finish line first.
Havana was the 2-year-old who won the $500,000 stakes in a highly impressive effort. After just one start in a lightning-quick 5 ½-furlong maiden race, Havana was presented with a formidable challenge in stretching out to a one-turn, one-mile Grade 1 test.
After contesting a fast pace, Havana spurted clear in the stretch and then held on at the end to win by neck as the 5-2 third-choice ($7.20) in the wagering.
The victory assured Havana of a spot in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita and he might even be the favorite in the $2 million race that promises to crown the year's champion 2-year-old male. After all, Bond Holder, who won the FrontRunner, Santa Anita's major prep for the Juvenile, was only a maiden.
"Anytime you go from 5 ½ [furlongs] to a mile and do it against the type of horses he was in with today, it's always a concern," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "We did a similar thing with Uncle Mo [in the 2010 Champagne], the difference being that was six [furlongs] to a mile. I think it takes a pretty special horse to do it. I'm proud of his effort today. We knew we were asking him a lot, but we were doing it because we liked him a lot."
Yet as much as the glory belonged to Havana in the Champagne, in the end it might be the runner-up who enjoys the proverbial last laugh as the races become longer and richer.
Honor Code may have bid adieu to a perfect record in the Champagne, but he came out of the race looking even more of the part of a bona fide Triple Crown contender than he did in an eye-opening maiden win.
“After trailing by as many as 22 lengths in his debut and winning by 4 ½ lengths for trainer Shug McGaughey, Honor Code was closer to the front, but still a sizeable 11 lengths behind Havana after a half-mile. As Honor Code kicked into gear on the turn, jockey Javier Castellano was forced to take his mount eight wide on the turn, losing a parking-lot worth of ground. Nevertheless, Honor Code sustained his rally in the final furlong and fell a couple of strides shy of collaring and passing Havana.
Having to go wide probably cost us the race, but Havana got the jump at the head of the stretch and opened up, and we were unlucky to not catch him.” -- Shug McGaughey, trainer Honor Code
"Having to go wide probably cost us the race, but Havana got the jump at the head of the stretch and opened up, and we were unlucky to not catch him," McGaughey said. "I thought it was an awfully big effort for a horse of his type who is just learning and is kind of lazy in the first part until you do ask him."
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile will offer Honor Code an additional sixteenth of a mile to catch Havana, but there's no guarantee he'll be shipped to California. McGaughey, who won this year's Kentucky Derby with Orb, said after the Champagne he may opt for the Remsen at Aqueduct on Nov. 30 instead of the Nov. 2 BC Juvenile.
"You'd always like to go to the Breeders' Cup, but he's a young horse and it'd be only his third start," McGaughey said. "He'd have to ship to do it. Would the Remsen be the better spot for him at Aqueduct in his learning process? Obviously, next spring would be our main objective. Whatever [owners Lane's End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm] want to do is going to be fine with me."
Either way, as important a race as the Champagne and even the Breeders' Cup Juvenile might be, the key part of 2-year-old racing is the clues it provides for what will happen when a new year arrives and juveniles turn into 3-year-olds.
Havana, for his part, figures to be an outstanding runner. Any horse that can handle a challenge like a mile-long Grade 1 stakes in his second career has a bright future. Of course, when there's a mile and a quarter classic awaiting them in the spring, that late kick Honor Code displayed in the Champagne might come in very handy one day -- a day like the first Saturday in May.
Who says winning is everything?