Honor Code wins the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap with a strong closing rush. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
Two races before the main event on Belmont Stakes day on Saturday at Belmont Park, Honor Code dazzled the 90,000 fans in attendance with an electrifying turn of foot in the stretch of the Grade 1, $1,250,000 NYRA.com Metropolitan Handicap.
A two-time Grade 1 winner by 1992 Horse of the Year and Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, Honor Code rallied from last to first and streaked past pacesetter Private Zone in the stretch like the front-runner had galloped into quicksand. Honor Code surged to the lead and drove clear to win by 3 ¾ lengths for his first career Grade 1 win.
Trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey for owners Lane’s End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm, 4-year-old Honor Code won the Remsen Stakes at two but missed the Triple Crown trail with an injury. He returned with a victory in November 2014 and opened this year with a victory in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap.
Following a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard, Honor Code was somewhat overlooked at 7.10-to-1 in the Met Mile field, which also included 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist and 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic victor Bayern.
HONOR CODE AND CASTELLANO IN THE WINNER'S CIRCLE
Private Zone set a solid pace in the Met Mile through an opening half-mile in :44.92 with Bayern just a length back. Honor Code trailed the 10-horse field, 11 ¼ lengths behind Private Zone, while Tonalist raced in seventh.
Honor Code shifted gears on the turn under jockey Javier Castellano and when he charged into the stretch, the dark bay or brown ridgling really got rolling. He inhaled eight opponents in the final quarter-mile with a visually stunning burst of speed in a dominant performance that netted him the $670,000 winner’s share of the purse.
"Javier said, ‘At the eighth pole, I ran by them all.’ We’re tickled to death with the effort. He’s been a special horse all along,” McGaughey said. “He threw in a bad one at Churchill Downs. Javier came back and he blamed the track. I had to blame the track. We didn’t get the scenario, either, with the pace. He’s got an affinity for New York tracks.”
Tonalist closed for second with game Private Zone holding on for third. Bayern faded to last.
Honor Code improved to five wins from eight starts and boosted his career earnings to $1,308,260.
“It means a lot,” McGaughey said after his first win in the Met Mile. “It’s a race I’ve held in high esteem for a long time. I’ve just been beat in it a couple times. This is a big thrill for me.”
Bred in Kentucky by Dell Ridge Farm, Honor Code is one of two graded stakes winners produced by the stakes-winning Storm Cat mare Serena’s Cat. His third dam (maternal great-grandmother) is champion Serena’s Song, who went on to become an elite broodmare with four graded stakes winners to her credit.
Below is a recap of the other graded stakes on the Belmont Stakes-day card.
Grade 1 Knob Creek Manhattan Stakes: Slumber unleashed a devastating rally in the final quarter-mile and powered away late to win by 2 ¾ lengths for trainer Chad Brown and owners Michael Dubb, Sheep Pond Partners and Bethlehem Stables.
A 7-year-old by Cacique, Slumber woke up at a great time, halting 10-race winless stretch in a $1-million race and more than doubling his lifetime earnings to $999,662.
“We finally put some small blinkers on the horse. I had been tinkering with doing it since I started training the horse, but every time I ran him, he ran a good a sheet number and I was afraid to make too many changes,” Brown said. “After his last start at Churchill — wide, and he didn't get the best trip and ran even again — I just thought ‘Now’s the time to try it.’ It made all the difference.”
Grade 1 Longines Just a Game Stakes: Tepin recorded her third straight win and by far her most important victory to date with a hard-fought half-length score in the one-mile Just a Game. After stalking the pace from third under Julien Leparoux, Tepin took charge inside the final furlong and held off a late bid from runner-up Filimbi to prevail at 4.60-to-1 for trainer Mark Casse and owner Robert E. Masterson.
Tepin entered the Just a Game off a front-running victory in the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard on May 2 at Churchill Downs.
“We’re excited,” Casse said. “We’re going to go to Saratoga for the first time in a long time. When you win a Grade 1 in front of a Belmont Stakes day crowd, it’s pretty exciting.”
Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Stakes: Wedding Toast turned back a bid from champion Untapable and powered clear in the stretch to a dominant five-length romp under Jose Lezcano. The 5-year-old Street Sense mare improved to seven wins from 11 career starts and earned her first career Grade 1 win in the 1 1/16-mile Ogden Phipps.
“Around the turn when [Untapable] was moving three wide I was a little bit concerned, but looking back to us we had a lot of run and opened up quick turning for home,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Wedding Toast for owner Godolphin Racing. “It was a great win.
“She’s a nice homebred, by Street Sense. It’s very nice to win for Godolphin. It was a great race.”
WEDDING TOAST WINS OGDEN PHIPPS
Grade 1 Acorn Stakes: Making her first career start in a stakes race, Curalina extended her winning streak to three for trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners with a neck victory over Grade 1 winner By the Moon. The 3-year-old filly by Curlin handled a significant class jump from an allowance race to a Grade 1 in only her fourth career start.
“She’s a filly we'd had high hopes for, for a long time. We felt like she was one of our best 2-year-old fillies last year, unfortunately she had some baby stuff that she needed some time off for,” Pletcher said. “She came back and ran impressively in both starts, [and] we came here with the Acorn in mind and then she made it an easy decision by how well she trained.”
CURALINA CAPTURES ACORN
Grade 2 Brooklyn Invitational Stakes: Coach Inge dug in determinedly in the closing strides to hold off 2014 Travers Stakes winner V. E. Day by a neck in a thrilling edition of the Brooklyn. Trained by Todd Pletcher for owner Repole Stable, Coach Inge entered off a 12 ½-length romp on April 22 at Aqueduct and was making his stakes debut.
Grade 2 Woody Stephens Stakes: March rallied to victory under Irad Ortiz Jr. for his second consecutive graded stakes triumph. The 3-year-old colt by Blame entered the seven-furlong Woody Stephens off of a win in the Grade 3 Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct on April 4 for trainer Chad Brown and owner Robert LaPenta.
“This horse had been training really well, and we've figured out a few things about this horse. Obviously, the distance — he’s a come-from-behind sprinter — and he runs really well fresh. He came off a layoff in the Bay Shore, and he ran so well we figured ‘You know, let’s just give him another layoff into the big race.’ ”
Competitive Edge, the 0.45-to-1 favorite finished last of six for his first career defeat.
MARCH (RIGHT) EDGES CINCO CHARLIE IN WOODY STEPHENS
Grade 3 Jaipur Invitational Stakes: Channel Marker raced just off the early pace and responded willingly when given his cue from jockey Francisco Torres. The Purim gelding took command in the final sixteenth of a mile and edged clear to win the six-furlong turf sprint by a length at 10.60-to-1 odds for his first career stakes win for trainer Philip Bauer and owner Rigney Racing.