Honor Code, who got a little warm entering the starting gate, gave Liam’s Map quite the head start — 19 1/4 lengths according to the official chart — but was still able to reel in the freewheeling gray in the final strides of Saturday’s $1.25 million Whitney (G1) at Saratoga.
In taking the nine-furlong Whitney by a neck, Honor Code not only confirmed his status as the leading older male on dirt in training, but also put to rest doubts that he might not be a true two-turn horse.
Although a winner of the Remsen (G2) at two, Honor Code’s subsequent appearances around two turns had left something to be desired. Concerns increased greatly after he threw in the worst performance of his career in the May 1 Alysheba (G2) at Churchill Downs, a loss his connections attributed to him not getting a hold of the track.
The plan all along has been to send Honor Code to Kentucky for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) in October. Luckily for the A.P. Indy ridgling, the richest event on the North American calendar will be held at Keeneland rather than Churchill.
The four-year-old had been quite stellar around one turn, taking the Metropolitan H. (G1) in breathtaking fashion on Belmont Day after conceding the leaders 14 lengths. He also earned the moniker of “Cardiac Kid” for his rally in the one-mile Gulfstream Park H. (G2) earlier this year, when he made up 15 lengths against the top sprinter Private Zone and win by a half-length.
From his earliest days, Honor Code has made a habit of making the heart skip and causing throat lumps to form with his Silky Sullivan impersonations. On his first public appearance, on a rainy day at Saratoga two summers ago, he rode the rail from 22 lengths down to win by 4 1/2 lengths going seven furlongs. But the tactics didn’t always work. Next out in the Champagne (G1), he fell a neck short after being down 11 lengths.
This tendency to drop far, far off the pace might not always work going forward. At least in the Whitney, the Todd Pletcher-trained Liam’s Map set things up beautifully with scorching fractions of :22.79, :46 and 1:09.72. It would be strange to see splits like that in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, even over a track with a reputation like Keeneland’s, and Honor Code could find himself in deep waters if he and Javier Castellano try to get too cute.
All that’s in the future, though. For now, it’s a simple relief that a quality horse has risen to the top of a division vacated by the likes of Shared Belief and California Chrome due to injury. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, potentially, has a quality older rival against which his true greatness can be measured.
Trainer Shug McGaughey said post-Whitney that the Kelso H. (G2) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) are possible next targets, but I can’t imagine what a stopover in the one-mile Kelso could do for this exciting stallion prospect. The 10-furlong Jockey Club Gold Cup looks firmly in his wheelhouse now, and co-owner Will Farish would probably like nothing more than win the Cup again, 12 years after his Mineshaft clinched Horse of the Year honors by winning it.
The Kelso, on the other hand, looks a perfect fit for Liam’s Map, whose five-race win streak came to a tough ending here. The deeply-talented son of Unbridled’s Song was making his graded debut in the Whitney, and just missed in an outstanding effort. Nine furlongs, at least going as fast as he did, was a few steps too far, and he should probably be dropped back in trip.
Tonalist followed Honor Code from near the back and was a clear third without endangering the top two. He’ll likely be defending his Jockey Club Gold Cup title next time, but even he makes amends for his last two defeats to Honor Code there, it’s hard to see him pulling off a Breeders’ Cup Classic upset at Keeneland. He remains a better horse at Belmont.
The form of the Stephen Foster H. (G1) took a hit with Noble Bird and Lea both running up the track, and the Jimmy Jerkens-trained pair of Wicked Strong and V. E. Day also failed to fire. Some of them may reappear in the Woodward (G1), which should be an easier race, and/or the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which won’t be.
(Honor Code photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography)