In the days leading up to the Virginia Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher insisted the second leg of a four-race series was no time to start dreaming about collecting a $3 million bonus for sweeping them all. With a victory Saturday in the signature race at Colonial Downs, however, Pletcher might begin to let his mind wander.
Stalking a seemingly insurmountable lead by Chattahoochee War, whom the eight other runners allowed to casually gallop along through slow fractions, the Pletcher-trained English Channel revved up in the stretch for jockey John Velazquez and pulled away to a 3 1/4-length victory before a crowd of 8,121.
The win in the Grade III $750,000 turf race for 3-year-olds follows English Channel's score in the $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup on June 25. If he can win the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes on Aug. 13 at Arlington Park and the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf at Belmont Park, the colt will take down the inaugural Grand Slam of Grass created by Colonial Downs owner Jeff Jacobs.
"The bonus will be great to talk about, but as Todd said, we need to win one more" before it is worth talking about, said owner James Scatuorchio, his suit drenched in the winner's circle in the Amazonian humidity.
English Channel, picked out of a Kentucky auction in 2003 by Pletcher's father, J.J., for $50,000, has won five of six starts and $892,691. He ran the 11/4-mile race in 2 minutes 2.57 seconds, getting the final quarter mile in a sharp 24.34 seconds.
While passing every test in his young career, English Channel had never raced over soft ground, and torrential rains that began to fall two races before the Virginia Derby left the course soft and yielding.
Velazquez said the last thing he wanted was to be stuck behind horses early on because it might be difficult to get going on the soft ground.
"After that rain, I didn't want to get behind everybody and take hold of him," he said. "I gave him a little slap coming out of the gate, and from there on, he did it all."
English Channel patiently raced behind Chattahoochee War, trained by Bobby Frankel, before making his move before the eighth pole. Chattahoochee War held for second, and Frankel's other runner, Irish import Rebel Rebel, came in third.
Pletcher, as he did at the Colonial Turf Cup, did not join his horse at Colonial Downs, this time attending his brother-in-law's wedding in Lake Tahoe. Assistant Ginny DePasquale, however, appeared to be handling things just fine.
"The Grand Slam is definitely within sight," she said, out on the track after the race. "When he runs, he doesn't win by a neck or a nose -- he lets them know he's there and is going to win."