FLASH BAK OUTDUELS EMPRESSUM TO WIN CHAMPION OF CHAMPIONS AT LOS ALAMITOS
Valeriano Racing Stables’ Flash Bak became the first horse since 2014 to win the Champion of Champions from post number one after accelerating powerfully away from the gate to outduel defending winner and AQHA World Champion Empressum by ¾ lengths in the 51st running of the Grade 1, $750,000 Champion of Champions on Saturday at Los Alamitos.
In winning the fifth Grade 1 stakes race of his career, and third Grade 1 at 440 yards, Flash Bak also became the first Quarter Horse in the history of the Champion of Champions to enjoy the taste of victory after having previously finished second in this race. Many have run second in the years after winning the Champion of Champions, but Flash Bak stands unique as the only one to come so close before returning to claim victory in the sport’s most prestigious race.
Ridden by Francisco Calderon for trainer Heath Taylor, Flash Bak’s victory from along the rail makes him the first to win from this starting spot since AQHA World Champion Last To Fire won the 2014 running. Prior to Last To Fire, Apollitical Jess set the track record at 440 yards when he won the Champion of Champions in 2010 on the way to being named AQHA World Champion.
With a 15 mile per hour head wind to deal with, Flash Bak’s winning time in the Champion of Champions was :21.578, while his earnings of $375,000 for the victory took his career bankroll to $1,815,157. Bred by James Streelman and Bill Dale, the Missouri-bred 5-year-old gelding is by Moonin The Eagle and out of the 2006 Governor’s Cup Futurity winner Checknbac. Streelman campaigned Flash Bak through his sophomore campaign, winning the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Winter Derby and then the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Super Derby with a rallying effort made famous by the footage of an innovative addition at Los Alamitos - a high-definition camere on a state-of-the-art drone.
Flash Bak then ran second to Apollitical Pence in the 2021 Champion of Champions, which was his last start for Streelman before the famous Dutch Masters III owner sold him privately to Sammy Valeriano of Odessa, Texas. Under his new black and red V silks, Flash Bak has continued to flash his incredible talents. He competed in six Grade 1 stakes races in 2022, winning the Zia Park Championship at 440 yards while also running second in The Sunland Park Championship at 440, the Go Man Go Handicap at 400 and the Brad McKinzie Los Alamitos Winter Championship also at 400 yards. He never finished lower than fourth in his Grade 1 outings last year.
In 2023, Flash Bak started slowly, finishing out of the money in his first two Grade 1 outings, but he turned it around from there. He was second in the Grade 1 All American Gold Cup to KJ Desperado before avenging that loss by winning the Grade 1 Downs at Albuquerque Fall Championship Stakes over KJ Desperado at 440 yards. Flash Bak headed to Lone Star after that victory with no plans to travel to California for the Champion of Champions until Taylor offered that option to Valeriano.
“When he ran in Albuquerque, it took a lot out of the horse, and instead of shipping from Albuquerque to here 10 hours, the horse went back to Lone Star with no intentions of coming (here),” Taylor said. “I was talking one night to the owner and I said ‘This horse is eligible for the trials and I think he can get in.’ Their first natural reaction, which they had a great plan, they were going to wait for the Zia Park Championship or the Refrigerator Handicap (at Lone Star) right there. They decided at the very last minute to send the horse out here in time to meet the (California Horse Racing Board) rules for medication and different stuff.”
On arrival, Flash Bak was pointed to the Z. Wayne Griffin Directors Trials, which serve as the trials to determine the final few berths to the Champion of Champions. Flash Bak finished third, but that was good enough to earn him a spot for this race.
“In the (Z. Wayne Griffin Trials), the race is 400 and he is a true 440 horse,” Taylor added. “If you go back and watch the race close, it’s just crazy how he finished in the trials. That was with him only being here 14 days plus the medical work and the shipping. In these last three weeks, it’s just unreal how much weight and power he’s put on. The horse is always super calm. You’re almost worried that he’s not going to run. The last three days the horse has just been animated, squealing, jumping, kicking. I’m still learning the horse. I thought maybe he was sitting on something special. He’s really been animated the last three days. The main thing is that he got away (from the gate) super, super good.”
Flash Bak was the ninth fastest out of the gate but was second at the first margin call and by the midway point he was in the lead, which he would never relinquish in this race. Empressum, who broke from post two, picked up speed and made a threatening move around the midway point, but Flash Bak responded with an even stronger kick to put a little more distance between them.
“When the horses (Flash Bak and Empressum) got there past the gap and looking like they were still moving really easy,” Taylor added. “They’re both huge finishers and they were that close, and they were moving smooth, so I thought the (Flash Bak) and (Empressum) at about the 220 both could win the race. At that time, I didn’t know which one. It turned out to be a super finish. Two of the best horses I’ve ever had, that’s all you can ask for.
“Flash Bak is just a tremendous moving horse. The length of his stride is enormous. It’s not normal for a Quarter Horse. He just gobbles up that ground if he can just get on top of it and get a good, clean 100 yards. He showed (that) by beating KJ Desperado in a scintillating time in Albuquerque, and he looked like he justified that today because the other horses I had didn’t really have an excuse. I thought Jeriko at one time was probably last a good three lengths and he ran fourth. He got beat about an inch for third. He’s upside is tremendous as he matures and gets better. It looked like Shott Gun and Whiskey Creek both got away well and run their race. Unfortunately, there is only one winner. We’re fortunate tonight it was ours.”
The complete order of finish is as follows: Flash Bak, Empressum, A Tres Of Eagle, Jeriko, Take A Swig Of This, Shott Gun, Apolltical Pence, Hooked N Gone, Scoops Dynasty, and Whiskey Creek.
“It’s a dream come true,” Valeriano said. “I’ve always wanted to win the Champion of Champions. I won it with Apollitical Pence when me and Matt Dunn were half owners. To be the lone owner, it’s a dream come true. I purchased him because I liked him after he won the Super Derby. I wanted him back in the day, but they didn’t want to sell him. They finally sold him (in early 2021). These are moments that I don’t know if they’ll ever come back, but we are going to keep trying.
“As soon as I saw his break, I know he closes really fast so, they weren’t going to catch him, I knew he was going to win,” said Valeriano, who has owned Quarter Horses since 2008.
The winning connections have all enjoyed incredible years. Calderon set a new AQHA single year jockey earnings record after piloting Trane Station V to victory in the Golden State Million Futurity, as he went over the $5.1 million mark. After Flash Bak’s victory in the Champion of Champions, Calderon’s earnings are now $6,399,244 for 2023, more than $1.3 million higher than the previous single year record set by G.R. Carter of $5,019,594 in 2008. Valeriano and Taylor are also the nation’s leaders in their respective divisions in 2023. Valeriano leads all owners in earnings with $2,701,824, while Taylor tops the trainers with $4,671,745.
On Sunday at Los Alamitos, Valeriano, Taylor and Calderon could add even more money to their bankrolls, as they will team up with fastest qualifier Trane Station V in the $1,785,000 Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity.
That’s on Sunday. This Saturday belonged to Flash Bak, who is now a winner of 11 of 29 career starts.
For Taylor, the reigning AQHA champion trainer, this is his second consecutive victory in the Champion of Champions after saddling Empressum last year.
“I remember taking a mason jar and just being happy just seeing the dirt,” said Taylor about his first visit to Los Alamitos as a teenager in the mid-1980s. “Bob Baffert gave me a pair of blinkers. I was 16 and that was my high school present for the summer. I didn’t have a car. I walked to the Courtyard (Hotel) and stayed here three days. It was just something about here that resonated with me. It was a big deal then to have a jar filled with the dirt of the track back then. I still have the blinkers Baffert gave me at my home in Indiana at my mom’s house. It hasn’t sunk in yet. To win this race last year and the All American Futurity, that’s a wonderful career. To be fortunate enough to win the Oaks, Ed Burke, Golden State Million, (PCQHRA Breeders), and the Champion of Champions, I know how hard it is and how blessed I am. I’m trying to be more in the moment because I know it won’t happen again, it won’t for me.”
Owned and bred by Steve Holt and Jeff Jones, Empressum finished second to earn $120,000 for his effort. Empressum is now less than $60,000 from reaching the $2 million mark in earnings. For his career, the son of Apollitical Jess has earned $1,954,294. Rodrigo Sigala Vallejo piloted the defending Champion of Champions winners.
Bella Vista Farms’ A Tres Of Eagle earned $75,000. Ridden by Jhaciel Soto for trainer Eddie Willis, A Tres Of Eagle qualified to the Champion of Champions by winning the Grade 1 Bank of America Challenge Championship at Lone Star Park on October 21. This was his seventh in the money finishes from eight starts this year.