Handicapping Insights - August 13
By Dick Powell
Of all the good horses I have ever seen in person before a race, SEATTLE SLEW (Bold Reasoning) behaved the worst. He would wash out before every race and act up right up until loading into the starting gate. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) in 1978, he even broke through the starting gate before the start of the race and almost won.
But last Saturday, and the days before Saturday, HONOR CODE (A.P. Indy), a grandson of Seattle Slew, looked like he would give grampy a run for his money. Remember, we are only talking about good horses here that misbehave. Bad horses that act up before races are a dime a dozen but it is the rare horse that acts up before a race and still, runs their best.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s epic renewal of the Whitney Stakes (G1), the backstretch was buzzing about Honor Code’s refusal to train. At one point last week before the race, he refused to train on the Oklahoma training track and Shug McGaughey had to change exercise riders and take him over to the main track to work out before his big Whitney Stakes engagement.
In a very crowded paddock at Saratoga on Saturday, which included Australian training legend Gai Waterhouse and “Mad Genius” Michael Dickinson, Honor Code came in and to say he looked less than a million dollars is putting it kindly. He was sweating like a combination of Rodney Daingerfield on stage and Patrick Ewing at the free throw line.
On the way to the post, on a day that was not that hot, Honor Code got even hotter so that by the time he made it to the gate, he did not have sweat on his neck but lather. The 37.5-to-10 second choice in the wagering was not a pretty sight although I thought he looked okay.
I felt that LIAM’S MAP (Unbridled’s Song) was the one to beat and if one of the main challengers is going to use up energy before the race, that’s fine with me.
My biggest worry about Liam’s Map’s chance to win the Whitney was the condition of the main track, which did not seem very fast or speed-favoring. The Test Stakes (G1), run 35 minutes before the Whitney for 3YO fillies going seven furlongs, was won by CAVORTING (Bernardini) in the very average time of 1:22.81.
Even if the early races on the main track were run in decent time, the winning running styles were from off the pace and speed was not holding up. But, at 5-to-1 and getting seven pounds from most of the major contenders, I still felt that Liam’s Map was a great bet and played him hard. LEA (First Samurai) was my second choice and Honor Code my third. After a big bet to win on Liam’s Map, I played Lea and Honor Code over Liam’s Map in exactas.
Despite trainer Eric Guillot’s annual proclamation that “If you are in front of me (MORENO [Ghostzapper]), you are going too fast,” I thought Mike Smith could clear the field aboard Liam’s Map and sure enough, he did. Unfortunately, he had to run the first quarter in 22.79 seconds but it was wind aided so I was not panic stricken. A first half-mile in 46 seconds made me feel better as Liam’s Map had a clear lead over Moreno down the backstretch.
Going into the far turn, Smith kept the pedal down with a third quarter in 23.72 seconds and Liam’s Map just kept pouring it on the way Gary Stevens did about COMMENTATOR (Distorted Humor) in 2005. When Moreno began to drop back nearing the top of the stretch, suddenly Liam’s Map had a clear lead that looked insurmountable.
WICKED STRONG (Hard Spun) had made a nice middle move but was flattening out and the only ones making up ground from far back were Honor Code and TONALIST (Tapit). With a furlong to run, Liam’s Map had a four-length lead but as his stride began to shorten, Honor Code, running with his head down just like his daddy, was eating up ground and it was going to be a race between Honor Code and the wire since he was clearly going to go by Liam’s Map -- it was just a matter of when.
I was screaming for the wire but it came up too late. Honor Code won it in the last stride in one of the most thrilling finishes of the historic handicap races for older horses. Tonalist also flew home on a main track that he is not a proven commodity and should have a strong finish to the season.
Honor Code’s final time of 1:47.82 earned a BRIS Speed rating of 110; the same as his win in the Met Mile (G1). He showed he can handle two turns, as long as there is a strong enough pace. His antics will probably never go away so McGaughey will need extra helpings of ulcer medicine to get through the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) with this guy.
In a handicap division that has been deep all year, Liam’s Map is a welcome addition. Don’t know how far he will go but his stride length and cruising speed lead me to believe that 10 furlongs is within his grasp. Still lightly raced, he has some upside left for Todd Pletcher to find. Tonalist might just be the beneficiary of a being a closer racing on a closer’s track but I liked the way he finished and galloped out. He should be much tougher back at Belmont Park to defend his title in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) going 10 furlongs on a track that he loves.