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

0 Comments

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!”

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

eclipse awards
Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
1 Comment

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

bob baffert
Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.