A closer look at the Whitney field
With Catch a Flight gradually asserting himself as the best older horse in training on the West Coast, the Whitney should go a long way toward determining who is best in the East. It is from this pool that we might find the most significant threat to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (G1).
Here's a closer look at the field for the 1 1/8-mile Whitney, broken down by divisional champion contenders and non-contenders.
#1 HONOR CODE is a trendy horse to knock in this spot given how more brilliant he's looked around one turn, but it seems premature to dismiss his two-turn ability from such a small sample of races. The Remsen (G2) in November 2013 was not your typically-run route race, his mind and body perhaps weren't all there when he lost a Gulfstream allowance the following March to Social Inclusion in track-record time, and connections chalked up his poor effort in the Alysheba (G2) in May to not handling the Churchill track at all.
Perhaps he's a good bet-against as the likely favorite, but unlike many of his contemporaries he hasn't really had a chance to shine on the sport's biggest stages, mostly due to the infirmities that cost him much of his three-year-old campaign. He deserves one more chance to demonstrate his true two-turn prowess, and It would be no surprise if he lived up to the huge promise he showed as a potential classics player here.
#2 TONALIST looked incredible winning the Westchester (G3) in his season debut, but was no match for Honor Code in the Metropolitan H. (G1). However, his effort in the Suburban H. (G2), against a field he should have handled, was a real letdown. He was kept wide much of the way, moved into striking position prematurely, and looked really flat turning for home until he roused himself very late to get within a head of Effinex, who is no world beater.
Posting a major win outside of Belmont Park will go a long way toward shedding the image that Tonalist is a mere "one-track pony," so to speak. He has the innate talent to do it here, but did settle for minor awards in both the Jim Dandy (G2) and Travers (G1), albeit with some excuses.
#3 NOBLE BIRD had only a maiden win to his credit when the season started, but swiftly ripped through his allowance conditions and was a head short of sweeping Churchill Downs' major stakes for older horses this spring. Caught by Protonico in the Alysheba, he came back to win the Stephen Foster H. (G1) by a head.
You have to admire the tenacity Noble Bird has shown in prevailing in three of his last four appearances, all in photo finishes, and he should be ideally placed in the second flight here. The main questions are whether he can continue to thrive after so many tough races in succession, and how he will handle the move to Saratoga, a track most of the others have run well over previously.
#7 LEA could have been a major player in the division last year until his campaign was derailed by various injuries. It's hard to say he's come back as good this season coming off three losses in a row. After a narrow, courageous win in the Hal's Hope (G3) off an 11-month layoff, he was second to a horse who apparently liked Gulfstream more than he does, Constitution, in the Donn H. (G1). A non-threatening third in the Dubai World Cup (G1) next out, he then appeared to hang a bit in the stretch before falling just short to Noble Bird in the Stephen Foster.
If you want to cut him a little slack for his first start back following the long trip to and from the Middle East, Lea could conceivably be sharper for this appearance. Long-time fans will be salivating at his price, which might be as high as they've received in a U.S. race since his victory in the 2014 Donn.
#5 MORENO upset this race at odds of 10-1 last season, and it turned out to be his only stakes win of the year. Taking full advantage of Shared Belief's early exit from the Charles Town Classic (G2), he's since proceeded to demonstrate that he's still a cut below the top players in the division. He never got close to making the lead or pressing in the Gold Cup (G1) last time, and when he can't do that you can forget about it. I expect a stronger effort here given how well he's run at Saratoga in the past, and a trifecta crash can't be ruled out.
#4 LIAM'S MAP looks like a lot of Todd Pletcher-trained older horses seen over the years -- long on talent, but seemingly short on durability. This colt has won four of five starts since making a belated debut last August, but has raced just once this term and that was over a mile when he was able to dictate a moderate pace against a small field. I'm not convinced that will be enough foundation to beat the deepest field of older horses assembled so far this year, especially over a distance he's never traveled and with Moreno presumably keeping him honest up front.
#6 V. E. DAY, until the Whitney, has not been placed in the kind of races that would suggest his connections consider him a top flight older horse. But after running sixth in the Fort Marcy (G3) on turf and second in the 12-furlong Brooklyn (G2), it makes sense to try him in this spot given his two-for-two record over Saratoga's main track. The latter win, of course, was his upset over stablemate #9 WICKED STRONG and Tonalist in last year's Travers. He's an interesting longshot for exotics, less so for the win pool.
Despite a strong local record, Wicked Strong seems a bit exposed this season following losses in the Gulfstream Park H. (G2), Excelsior (G3), and Met Mile. Noticeably absent from the Suburban in favor of a one-mile turf overnight stakes last month, in which he finished second, he could only muddle the championship picture with an unexpectedly sharp performance here.
#10 NORMANDY INVASION has never really lived up to the hype and enters off two losses versus softer at Delaware Park. # 8 COACH INGE, the Brooklyn winner, is expected to scratch.
(Honor Code photo: Susie Raisher/Adam Coglianese Photography)