William S. Farish's homebred Code of Honor made a stylish debut at Saratoga Race Course in August and has emerged as one of several New York-connected contenders for Saturday's Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby.
The son of first-crop stallion Noble Mission – a full brother to the great Frankel – continues to train exceptionally toward the Kentucky Derby for Hall of Fame conditioner Shug McGaughey, exiting his Sunday breeze at Churchill Downs in good shape on Monday morning.
Code of Honor worked a half-mile in a blistering 46.80 seconds over the Churchill Downs dirt, good for second-fastest of 76 moves that morning.
Always highly regarded, Code of Honor graduated at first asking at Saratoga on August 18 winning at 6-1 odds under Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez, who has been aboard for four of his five starts, both his wins and returns to the saddle on Saturday.
Going gate-to-wire on debut and shocking sire pedigree handicappers in the process, he established himself as a horse with a serious future – a statement that was substantiated when he came back and finished a phenomenal second on October 6 at Belmont Park in the Grade 1 Champagne after stumbling at the start.
“He had been at Courtlandt Farm when he was younger and the guy who manages Lane's End said they were sending him to me,” McGaughey explained. “I knew they wouldn't send any horse they didn't like. Then, after he won, Mark Hennig, who trains for Courtlandt, told me that he had seen him training while he was there and was training really well and was a very nice horse. I was actually surprised at how well he really did train. At that time, nobody knew what was going to happen with Noble Mission or what kind of sire he would be, but he's turned out to be okay.”
Since the Champagne, it has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride for the chestnut colt. The buzz horse heading into the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he was scratched after spiking a temperature the morning of the race.
Given a couple months to freshen, he returned and disappointed as the 4-5 favorite in Gulfstream Park's $100,000 Mucho Macho Man, finishing fourth over the one-mile trip. Sharpened up and allowed to go two turns for the first time, he flushed his fair-weather fans who abandoned him to 9-1 odds in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, defeating Bourbon War and subsequent Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma decisively.
The proverbial pendulum decided to swing back to the dark side of the horseracing game in the Grade 1 Florida Derby last out, as he finished third to gate-to-wire victor Maximum Security.
“It was a messed-up race,” McGaughey said. “[Maximum Security] got loose on the lead and all the other horses were taking back, which took us out of our game plan and when you get a horse going as slow as he can run over a speed-favoring track – like Maximum Security did – and you're a mid-pack one-run horse like us, you have to move earlier than you want to and we got stuck on the inside. It just didn't work out.”
McGaughey must be respected in any race, but especially the Kentucky Derby, where his record is impressive, including one victory.
McGaughey has started in a total of five Derbies with seven total horses. The last time he had a Derby starter, his Orb, who graduated at Aqueduct Racetrack, was a popular victor in the mud of 2013. In 1989, he finished second and third with New York maiden breakers, the Hall of Famer Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring.
Easy Goer went on to finish second in the Preakness before denying Sunday Silence a Triple Crown by winning the Belmont. McGaughey also finished a respectable sixth and seventh with top-class horses Pine Circle (1984) and Seeking the Gold (1988).
“This is a really nice group,” he continued. “Most all of them have won some major races. As there always is, there are some horses that don't belong, but you could have said that about Mine That Bird, too. It's a lot of intrigue in the Derby with a 20-horse field. There are some fairly decent horses in there and I think some will come out of the race as very decent horses.”
While his sire was a brilliant Group 1-winning turf star, it is not a complete surprise that Code of Honor has taken exceedingly well to the dirt. His dam, Reunited, is by dirt sire Dixie Union and was a multiple stakes winner on the surface, including a victory in the Grade 3 Thoroughbred Club of America at Keeneland in 2005. She produced Grade 2-placed dirt sprinter Big League [Speightstown], one of the more talented juveniles in California in 2016.
And, as it were, McGaughey must be respected any time he brings a horse to run under the Twin Spires in his native Kentucky home. Some of his greatest victories have occurred at the Louisville oval and it goes without saying his form as a world-class conditioner is as sharp as ever.
“I have had a lot of good memories here,” McGaughey concluded. “I hope I have some more.”
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