LOS ALAMITOS, CA—DECEMBER 10, 2022–The 50th running of the Grade 1 Champion of Champions was billed as "a race for the ages" and the $750,000 quarter mile classic certainly lived up to the hype, as Steve Holt and Jeff Jones' homebred Empressum ran an incredible race from post 10 to defeat the richest field in the history of Quarter Horse racing and a field for the ages that included reigning AQHA World Champion Danjer and two-time Champion of Champions winner Apollitical Pence on Sunday at Los Alamitos.
Leaving the gate sharply and guided by jockey Rodrigo Sigala Vallejo, Empressum took the lead about 50 yards into the race, opening a half-length advantage over Apollitical Pence.
Empressum, an Oklahoma-bred 4-year-old gelding by Apollitical Jess, had a 3/4 length lead at the halfway point of the 440-yard classic and he continued to roll from there on the way to a 1 1/4 length victory over the great Danjer in a time of :21.089. Empressum's winning time is the fourth fastest in the history of the Champion of Champions and the fastest since his sire set the track and stakes record of :20.93 in 2010.
The race was so attractive that more money was wagered in this Champion of Champions than in any of its other 49 runnings. The $171,030 wagered to win, place, and show in this year's running was nearly $49,000 more than the previous high of $122,427 set in 2018.
An additional $223,348 was wagered in the exacta, trifecta and superfecta to bring the total money bet on this race to a Champion of Champions record total of $394,328.
The top contenders were viewed to be so evenly matched that very little separated the top three favorites in the wagering. Bomb Cyclone went off as the favorite at odds of 2.30 to 1. Apollitical Pence was the second choice at 2.40 to 1, while Empressum was the third choice at 2.50 to 1 (or 5-2).
Danjer was the fourth choice at 4-1. In the end, it was Empressum who got the money, as his 17th victory in 23 career starts earned him a first-place share of the purse of $375,000. With his winnings, Empressum took his career tally to $1,620,025.
"I’ve never held this much money in my life," said Jones, as he held the novelty check presented to the winning connections after the race. "I’m so proud of Empressum. When you looked at him in his eye when he was baby, he was special, and he knew he was special. He's continued to be special here at Los Alamitos."
"I have to thank Los Alamitos. It’s a great racing facility with a great history here," Holt said. "We made a commitment to come out this year. We brought the horse out and stayed all summer. Like Heath said, it's great when a plan works out. Very rarely does it, but with that kind of animal we got, sometimes he brings his own luck."
Out of Holt's mare, Crazy Down Corona, Empressum was foaled and raised by Holt.
"I foaled them all out there at the house," Holt said. "I like to be there when it's done, not that I'm any better. I just give them a little extra care. I baby them. We groom there. We take care of them. They are like family to us. And when you win something like this, you just really can't believe them."
Empressum's Champion of Champions win completed a tremendous 2022 campaign in which he also won the Grade 1 Vessels Maturity and Grade 1 Go Man Go Handicap, both in eye-popping style. Those wins were just the launching point for his connections' goal of winning the Champion of Champions.
"If you got a goal and your goal is on a certain date, you mark that goal and you work backwards. Don't be training that horse every day for tomorrow. So many people want to train the horse based on when they want to run the horse. They can overthink it about when your horse needs a race. Mainly it's working backwards from your goal."
Empressum did taste defeat at Los Alamitos when finishing second to Apollitical Pence in the Grade 1 Robert Boniface Los Alamitos Invitational Championship on October 8.
"That was a big low from the standpoint that he had been so dominant in the Vessel and the Go Man Go," Taylor said. "The horse (Apollitical Pence) that won the race that night, I gave him all the credit in the world. He ran a tremendous, tremendous race. I thought that I didn't do a very good job (preparing Empressum) and that's putting it on me and not taking anything away from the winner. The winner beat him on the square. I thought that (Empressum) had gotten a little soft. I thought he had gotten a little fat and maybe not quite as sharp on conditioning. I had been super busy with the Rainbow and All American and that's certainly no excuse, but the reality is that that was a prep race to get him ready for this race. I didn't want the horse to get beat but if he was going to get beat, I'd much rather see him get beat for $150,000 than $750,000. He came out of the last race really remarkable. We worked the horse. We gave the horse some time. We did some stuff with the horse. We did his teeth, dewormed him, and his coat started improving and his energy level got high."
Empressum came into the Champion of Champion ready to roll and that's exactly what he did.
"I think just a clean, clean start tonight," Taylor said. "Obviously healthy going into the race and super, super sharp. Tremendous respect to the field. We are blessed that he got it done. I think a good clean start, up on his feet, and a clean path, I think that was probably the biggest key."
"When the gates opened, I wasn't looking for any other horse," Sigala Vallejo said. "I just wanted my horse to break well and that's what happen. He ran a perfect race. He was comfortable. He was good. He was feeling good. He was well trained. My respects to the entire team. With a good horse to ride, here is the result."
For Taylor, being allowed to train again at Los Alamitos has been special after having served a lengthy suspension before being restored to good standing by the Louisiana State Racing Commission in January of 2019.
"You start back over from having zero to 10 Louisiana bred horses that you can race there in your backyard and you have zero open-bred horses," Taylor said. "And you don't have anything if you don't have the owners. A lot of those people stuck through it with me. The reputation (was) damaged and there were a lot of lonely nights when I walked around the house night after night after night by myself and I didn't have any horses. To come back and be able to win these kind of races and with those kind of people to have the confidence to buy and send (me) those kind of horses, it means everything. Without the horses you are nothing."
Empressum now looks set to remain in California for 2023.
"We had a lot of thoughts coming into tonight and a lot depended on tonight's race," Holt said. "To me, this (horse) doesn't owe us anything. The horse can tell us what we'll do with him. Probably, and this is just a guess because it's Heath's idea, but I made the Los Alamitos Winter Championship payment. I don't see (Empressum) leaving Los Alamitos anytime soon. Heath made me make the Winter Championship payment, and I'm going to make the Vessels Maturity payment as well. He may not leave California, but it'll be Heath's call.
I think I'll sleep good tonight after watching the replay about 20 times."
Owned by Downtime Enterprises, Dean Frey, and Billy Smith, Danjer ran a terrific race on the way to earning $120,000 for finishing second. Bred and trained by Dean Frey, the 6-year-old gelding by FDD Dynasty out of Shez Jess Toxic took his career earnings over the elusive $2 million mark. Danjer's earnings now stands at $2,087,068. James Flores piloted him from post two.
Dunn Ranch's Apollitical Pence, who was looking to win a record tying third Champion of Champions, earned $75,000 for running third. He took his career earnings to $1,709,235.
Rosenthal Ranch's Bomb Cyclone was uncharacteristically slow out of the gate before finishing solidly for fourth. He earned $52,500 to take his career earnings to $1,379,291.
Valeriano Racing's A Pollitical Candy V, the winner of the All American Derby, was sixth at the start but improved to finish fifth. Link Newcomb's Cattail Cove was sixth, while Rosenthal Ranch's Powerful Favorite finished in a dead-heat for seventh with Robert Harrison's Pattys Saint.
This was Powerful Favorite's final career start. Valeriano Racing's Sweet Dasha Fire and Sergio Castillo's Jessapolliticalgirl completed the field.
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