Honor A. P. maturing nicely into serious Kentucky Derby threat

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve was shifted from its normal first Saturday in May place on the calendar to Sept. 5, while the Preakness Stakes was postponed until Oct. 3 and the Belmont Stakes will kick off the 2020 Triple Crown on June 20 at the shortened distance of 1 1/8 miles.

Because so much has changed, let’s focus on an overview of how the feature of this profile would fit in the series should his connections opt to target one or all of those events.

This week we take a closer look at Honor A. P., winner of the $401,000 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby June 6 at Santa Anita Park.

Honor A. P. improved upon a runner-up finish in his stakes debut in March with a breakout victory June 6 in the Grade 1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, a victory that was impressive to watch as it unfolded and looks even better in hindsight with the benefit of speed figures. A well-bred $850,000 auction purchase, Honor A. P. has long been held in high regard. Let’s take a closer look at his credentials.

Ability: Purchased out of the 2018 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale by Lee and Susan Searing’s C R K Stable and sent to trainer John Shirreffs, Honor A. P. dropped more than 12 lengths back in his career debut Aug. 17, 2019, at Del Mar. He trailed the 10-horse field through a half-mile in the three-quarter-mile sprint, but closed gamely for second, 2 ½ lengths behind winner Ginobili. He earned a 93 Equibase Speed Figure for his first start and then took a nice step forward in his second race when he won a one-mile race at Santa Anita Park in October by 5 ¼ lengths when leading from start to finish. Honor A. P. earned a 105 Equibase Speed Figure in what was his final start as a juvenile.

After a layoff of more than 4 ½ months, Honor A. P. made his first start as a 3-year-old in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes March 7 at Santa Anita. He stalked the pace from fourth in his first try against stakes competition and closed willingly for second, 2 ¼ lengths behind unbeaten Authentic.

Despite the defeat, the San Felipe was a solid return for Honor A. P. as he earned a then-career-best 95 Beyer Speed Figure and a 101 Equibase Speed Figure while showing he was capable of competing with elite 3-year-olds in two-turn races. Shortly thereafter, however, the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the United States, shutting down most tracks including Santa Anita Park and forcing the postponement of all three Triple Crown races.

Perhaps that was not the worst thing for a maturing 3-year-old like Honor A. P., because three months later in the rescheduled Santa Anita Derby he looked like a markedly improved racehorse.

In the San Felipe, he was not able to sustain his momentum from the far turn into the stretch, where Authentic put him away. But in the Santa Anita Derby, Honor A. P. powered right on by and pulled away to win by 2 ¾ lengths.

While this was pretty clearly an improved Honor A. P., the Santa Anita Derby did set up almost ideally for him as Authentic ducked out at the start and needed to rush up just to gain a wide, stalking position. Honor A. P., on the other hand, came out of the starting gate perfectly and was able to settle in comfortably to a nice stalking position.

Authentic had it all his own way on the front end in the San Felipe, but he needed to work throughout the Santa Anita Derby and offered little resistance when Honor A. P. surged by in the stretch.

I don’t mean to imply that I was not impressed with Honor A. P. On the contrary, I thought his Santa Anita Derby win was very good in several ways. He accelerated right on cue with a powerful move on the turn and finished fairly well despite drifting in with a final eighth of a mile in :12.87 after stalking a solid pace. The speed figures were very encouraging: a new best 102 Beyer Speed Figure, an 11-point top 108 BrisNet Speed rating, a 105 Equibase Speed Figure (matched career best), and a 122 TimeForm speed rating.

A minor injury forced Shirreffs to take his foot off the gas with Honor A. P. over the winter and it looks like the extra time has been especially beneficial as he showed in the Santa Anita Derby. He will be pointed to the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 with the hope that he could make one start between now and then, probably in either the Los Alamitos Derby on July 4 or the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar on Aug. 1.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who has been aboard for all four of Honor A. P.’s starts, thinks 1 ¼ miles at Churchill Downs will be right in his wheelhouse.

“He gives every indication that he can go a mile and a quarter, just the way he galloped out [in the Santa Anita Derby]. I mean I had to pull him up,” Smith said. “He just keeps going with that big stride, it’s almost as if horses have to take two [strides] to his one, it seems like. He just really reaches. John has done a great job with just putting in some really good long works into him and really galloping him out. So he had a lot of air in him today.”

Running style: While he has come from last to finish second and won a race on the front end, Honor A. P. is a stalker with some tactical speed and the ability to settle nicely for his rider. I wouldn’t expect much to change as he could press a leisurely pace if necessary or drop farther back should he encounter blistering early fractions, but Honor A. P. seems very content to rate just in behind the first tier of runners and make his bid when called upon on the final turn. That should allow him to conserve some energy early in the Kentucky Derby and save his stamina for the stretch.

Connections: C R K Stable is the racing operation of high-school sweethearts Lee and Susan Searing of Claremont, Calif. The Searings named their stable after their three children – Christina, Richard, and Katherine – and have campaigned multiple Grade 1 winner Switch as well as 2004 Dubai Golden Shaheen winner Our New Recruit. In addition to Honor A. P., C R K also races top older male Midcourt. C R K finished 13th in the 2014 Kentucky Derby with Candy Boy.

“I have owned horses since I was 18 years old, so 54 years. I’ve never had a Santa Anita Derby winner,” Lee Searing said. “John [Shirreffs] knew we had the beginnings of a very nice horse. … We knew he was special.”

Most casual racing fans know trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith as the team behind Hall of Famer Zenyatta, the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and 2010 Horse of the Year. Shirreffs and Smith also teamed to win the 2005 Kentucky Derby with 50.30-1 longshot Giacomo.

A Vietnam War veteran who served in the Marines, Shirreffs, 75, served as an assistant to Brian Mayberry and Bill Spawr and has amassed more than 500 wins since taking out his trainer’s license in 1994. Shirreffs also trained Grade 1 winners Manistique, Starrer, Hollywood Story, Tarlow, Tiago, After Market, Harmonious, Nereid, Star Billing, Gormley, Hard Not to Love, and 2009 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (Distaff) winner Life Is Sweet.

Smith was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2003. The two-time Eclipse Award winner swept the 2018 Triple Crown aboard Justify and has won seven Triple Crown races. Smith is the all-time leading Breeders’ Cup rider by wins (26) and purse earnings ($36.6 million).

Pedigree: Honor A. P. is from the first crop of 2015 champion older dirt male Honor Code, winner of the Grade 1 Whitney and Met Mile during his championship season. He earned a career-best 126 Equibase Speed Figure for winning the 1 1/8-mile Whitney and profiled as a deep closer with an electric late burst of speed.

Honor A. P. is the second stakes winner produced by his dam (mother), Hollywood Story, by Wild Rush. Hollywood Story won at least one graded stakes in each of her four seasons on the racetrack, trained by John Shirreffs. She was a Grade 1 winner as a 2-year-old, taking the 1 1/16-mile Hollywood Starlet Stakes, and at 5 when winning the 1 1/8-mile Vanity Invitational Handicap. She won or placed seven times in Grade 1 races for Shirreffs.

Second dam (maternal grandmother), Wife for Life, by Dynaformer, won five races at distances up to a mile and was stakes-placed at one mile. Third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Huggle Duggle, by Never Bend, and fourth dam (maternal great-great-grandmother), Crown the Queen, by Swaps, were stakes winners and stakes producers. Huggle Duggle won the Grade 3 Gallorette Handicap in 1978 at 1 1/16 miles on the grass.

Honor A. P. had no problem stretching out to 1 1/8 miles for the Santa Anita Derby and I don’t think the 1 ¼-mile distance of Kentucky Derby should be an issue if he’s good enough on Sept. 5. He’s certainly headed in the right direction now and profiles as a top contender for the Derby and the Preakness in late summer-early fall.

“He’s one of the ones you didn’t know about before this pandemic hit. You didn’t know some horses were going to be peaking a whole lot better in May, which he probably wouldn’t have been,” Smith said. “Now that [the Kentucky Derby] is in September, we should be seeing a bigger stronger horse by then. He should get every little bit of the mile and a quarter. I’m excited!”

Breeders’ Cup preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

RELATED: Pleasant Passage wins Miss Grillo Stakes

The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

RELATED: Mo Donegal rewards team’s confidence at Belmont

Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.