By Bill Finley
After Jack Christopher (Munnings) romped in the GI Champagne S. at Belmont Park last year, his connections were optimistic that the horse had the talent to get them to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. That happened, just not the way anyone had planned. Not ready for the GI Kentucky Derby after seven-month layoff, Jack Christopher ran instead in the GII Pat Day Mile S., which he won by 3 3/4 lengths. While the victory was somewhat of a consolation prize, it set the colt up for what still could be a very productive year.
“I was very impressed,” trainer Chad Brown said. “He was coming off a long layoff and going into a graded stakes on Derby Day. There were a couple of really nice horses in there. So I thought it was a big test for him, a big challenge. He passed it well. I was so pleased and so relieved that he's back and ready to move forward.”
Jack Christopher was expected to go off as the favorite in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but was withdrawn after Brown discovered that the horse had a shin problem. He subsequently had a screw inserted into his left shin to repair a stress fracture. Had Brown decided to rush things he might have had Jack Christopher ready in time to make the Derby, but he decided to go a more cautious route.
“We decided to give him enough time and not rush him back,” the trainer said. “It was the right approach.”
Jack Christopher had his first published workout on the year on March 27 at Payson Park and made steady progress from there. In order to make the Derby, he would have had to have run in a prep race in order to pick up points. Once Brown realized that wasn't going to happen, he settled in on the Pat Day Mile. He liked the distance and the timing and how it might set the horse up for the rest of the year.
“At the mile, it worked out perfectly,” Brown said. “He was able to find his stride down the backside. He broke a little tardy and had to be used just a touch to get into position. When Jose (Ortiz) sat back on the horse against the bit the horse was a comfortable mover, just tugging along gently the entire race. He was running within himself.”
The Pat Day simply confirmed what Brown already knew, that this is a very good race horse.
“He's very special. He is an incredible talent,” he said.
Yet, Brown couldn't escape the obvious. He has what very well might be the most talented 3-year-old in training and won a graded stakes race on Kentucky Derby day. Only it wasn't the Kentucky Derby.
“It is bittersweet,” he said. “You only have one crack at the Derby. But that's part of what makes the Derby so difficult to win. There is a small window. Could he have won the Derby? We'll never know. Now it's in the books and the horse didn't make it. There are a certain number of people out there who believe this is the most talented colt in this crop. With previous crops through history, sometimes the most talented horse in the crop does not make the Derby. I'm not saying that's the case here. There are still long careers to be had out of this crop with many different horses. He's one of them. Ultimately, we'll find out down the road who the most talented horse is.”
The problem now for Brown and owners Jim Bakke and Gerry Isbister is that there is no obvious next step when it comes to the next race. The GI Preakness S. comes up too soon and is not under consideration. The GI Belmont S. is out because it would be asking too much to go from a mile to a mile-and-a-half. Brown isn't in love with the idea of cutting back in distance, but he also wants to keep Jack Christopher on a steady schedule. With that in mind, he said the seven-furlong GI Woody Stephens S., run June 11, Belmont day, will be next. The larger goal is the GI Haskell S. on July 23 at Monmouth.
“When we decided to take some extra time with the horse and take him out of consideration for the Derby, the race I spoke to Mr. Bakke about was the Haskell,” Brown said. “I told him he wasn't going to make the Derby but the Haskell is really the target. I do think the horse will get a mile and an eighth.”
That's the sort of a race where he could meet Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike (Keen Ice) along with a number of other top horses from this division. It will be a test, but one he seems capable of passing. Is Jack Christopher an “incredible talent?” We're about to find out.