A precocious 3-year-old might fool Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey once.
While a lackluster fourth-place finish in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park shook the betting public’s faith in William S. Farish’s Code of Honor, McGaughey went back to the drawing board after the Jan. 5 stakes.
He started working Code of Honor more frequently, giving the homebred son of Noble Mission the foundation that was lacking in the Mucho Macho Man. McGaughey was rewarded for his perseverance on March 2 with a three-quarter-length victory in the Grade 2, $400,000 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park that virtually wrapped up a spot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
The victory gave Code of Honor 50 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series and lifted his overall total to 54 points, a figure good enough to earn a starting spot in the run for the roses.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
“He did exactly what we hoped he would do earlier in his career,” Farish said. “He’s been training to do exactly what he just did. He breezed seven times since the last race and it paid off. He just needed more work. He showed it today.
“You couldn’t help but be disappointed in the last race. We felt he was ready, but all these horses haven’t had that much racing. We always knew he had the talent. It was just a matter of getting to this point. It’s pretty exciting. The game plan worked and now we move on to Churchill. We like Churchill.”
McGaughey shouldered the blame for the Mucho Macho Man, Code of Honor’s first start since a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 6. A fever on the day of the race knocked him out of the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and McGaughey believed the colt was fit and ready for his 3-year-old debut.
Code of Honor fooled him.
“I thought I had made a few mistakes with him,” McGaughey said. “I thought I needed to do some stuff with him that needed to be done, which was to get a better bottom in him than I had. Maybe he wasn’t ready for the Mucho Macho Man. Today, he was.”
As the favored Hidden Scroll carved out demanding quarter-mile fractions of :22.80 and :45.69, Code of Honor and jockey John Velazquez were fifth after the opening half-mile, a little more than eight lengths off the pace.
Hidden Scroll, in his first start since a monstrous 14-length win in the slop in his Jan. 26 debut at Gulfstream, remained in front to the eighth pole when Code of Honor surged past him from the outside and then held off a late bid from Bourbon War.
“We got the pace like we wanted it and it all worked out. He finished very well,” McGaughey said. “It looked like when he made the lead, he started looking for horses, but I was glad to see him kick like that. It’s been [the first time he did that since] October [he ran like that]. He couldn’t have got anything out of the Mucho Macho Man. I hope this will really move him forward.”
McGaughey said the March 30 Xpressbet Florida Derby is his preference for Code of Honor’s final Kentucky Derby prep, but he said the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct and Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland, both on April 6, would be options if Code of Honor came out of the Fountain of Youth “a little slow.”
Out of the Dixie Union mare Reunited, Code of Honor won for the second time in four starts and increased his earnings to $384,820. He is the first black-type stakes winner for Noble Mission, a Group 1-winning son of Galileo.
Vekoma, making his first start since November and a victory in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes, caught Hidden Scroll in the final yards to grab third by a neck over Juddmonte Farm’s 6-5 favorite.
Code of Honor ($21), the 9.50-1 fifth choice, covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.85.
Bourbon War picked up 20 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, while Vekoma was credited with 10 and Hidden Scroll five.
Bill Mott, who trains Hidden Scroll, lamented the fast pace for his unseasoned colt.
“At the end of the day, he wound up going pretty quick ... but he ran good,” he said. “It makes you wonder, well, should we have a chosen an easier spot, but I guess we felt we wanted to find out some things about him today, and we found out we weren’t ready for this.”
For McGaughey, there was special satisfaction in moving forward on the Derby trail with a horse trained by Farish, a longtime friend and supporter.
“It’s a big thrill. We’ve been friends for a long, long time,” McGaughey said about the owner and founder of Lane’s End Farm, where Noble Mission stands. “He’s always given me a horse or two and he’s always tried to give me a decent horse like Honor Code and now this horse. I know he was disappointed after the last race but he never says anything. He said he was nervous today but he knows that this was not the end of the road.”