The morning after William S. Farish's Code of Honor added some clarity to the leadership question in the 3-year-old male division by winning the Runhappy Travers Stakes for trainer Shug McGaughey, it was clear that it will likely come down to the Breeders' Cup World Championships to determine the recipient of an Eclipse Award.
That was surely the feeling Aug. 25 after the way trainer Bill Mott, who sent out Juddmonte Farms' Tacitus to a runner-up finish in the $1.25 million Mid-summer Derby at Saratoga Race Course, responded to a question about which 3-year-old would receive his vote as the leader of the pack.
"It's a tough one. I guess you have to consider Shug's horse," he said.
When it was pointed out to the Hall of Fame trainer that disqualified Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Maximum Security had two Grade 1 wins to Code of Honor's one, he put everything in the proper perspective.
"Those two for sure," he said. "But that all changes if they all come together in the Breeders' Cup. That ends up answering everything."
A day earlier, McGaughey put Code of Honor at the top of his list, saying, "Everybody still has some work to do, but I don't see how anybody can be above him. His race record is pretty darn good."
"It could have settled things yesterday if Maximum Security and Game Winner were here, but we'll see what happens down the line," McGaughey said. "Both are exceptionally nice horses. I wouldn't want to duck anyone, but we wouldn't have been second choice if they came."
As for those future plans, it's likely Code of Honor and Tacitus will square off again Sept. 28 in the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes held at 1 ¼ miles at Belmont Park, where they would also face older rivals.
"We probably have the Jockey Club penciled in more than anything else," McGaughey said about Code of Honor. "We won't chase any championships. We'll let the horse take us where he wants to go. That's the good thing about having the owners I have."
Mott also placed a target on the Jockey Club Gold Cup as the most likely next stop for Tacitus.
"I would give that a lot of consideration. I sure would," he said. "That being said, we have not discussed the next race. My feeling is that if he runs back, it would be there. I'm not going to Pennsylvania. I'm not sure (the Pennsylvania Derby) is the right race for him. Some horses go over there and run really well, and some don't handle it. I wouldn't want to go over there not knowing if he likes the racetrack or not."
Even without Code of Honor and Tacitus in the field, the Pennsylvania Derby could be the stage for a highly anticipated showdown between Maximum Security and Preakness Stakes winner War of Will. If both run in the 1 1/8-mile stakes, it would mark their first meeting since they were the protagonists in the bumping that led to Maximum Security's disqualification in the Kentucky Derby.
Gary West, who owns Maximum Security and Game Winner, also said 2-year-old champion Game Winner, who missed the Travers due to a virus, could be a possibility for the Pennsylvania Derby.
Adding to the Pennsylvania Derby intrigue, West previously offered to put up a $5 million challenge in a head-to-head matchup between Maximum Security and War of Will.
As for Code Honor and Tacitus, they both came out of the Travers in fine shape, according to their trainer.
For McGaughey, who entered the Mid-summer Derby supremely confident Code of Honor was ready for a career-best effort, his colt's three-length victory was reminiscent of 2013 when Orb won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
"It was like Orb's Kentucky Derby because when the jockey pushed the button on Orb that day, I knew he'd be ready to run. When (jockey John Velazquez) pushed the button yesterday, they were going to know he was in there," the four-time Travers winner said.
"It was a very rewarding race because in this game, plans don't always work out, but that one worked. I was really pleased with his win in the Dwyer (Stakes on July 6) and was pleased with the way he did it here."
McGaughey said he's already receiving vibes that Code of Honor, a May foal, will race at 4 and possibly beyond.
"I've always felt like, wait until we get him to be a 4-year-old. Hopefully by then he matures, and with him being a late foal, hopefully it will all come together," McGaughey said. "Bill (Will Farish's son) said we'll run him at 4 and 5. Luckily he's always been a real sound horse, and if he stays that way, we can do it. Mr. Farish is 80 years old. He doesn't need to see this horse in a field."
Tacitus, who was third in the Kentucky Derby, ran with blinkers for the first time in the Travers and showed more early speed than usual, actually leading the 10-furlong race after the opening quarter-mile. Mott said he was pleased with how Tacitus responded to the new equipment and will continue to use them on the son of the champion mare Close Hatches.
"I liked what I saw with the blinkers," said Mott, whose colt finished a half-length ahead of third-place finisher Mucho Gusto. "That didn't get us outrun. They put us in the race in a good spot. He broke well. I won't change that."
Ambitious Plans for Elate and Midnight Bisou
On a picture-perfect day at the Spa that attracted a paid crowd of 48,213 and produced Travers Day records for all-sources handle ($52,129,344) and on-track handle ($11,657,493), the duel between Elate and Midnight Bisou in the $651,000 Personal Ensign may have been the most spellbinding moment of the afternoon.
After an intense stretch duel, Midnight Bisou stuck her nose in front in the final stride to capture the 1 1/8-mile stakes and increase her 2019 record to 6-for-6, with three of the wins coming at Elate's expense.
Mott said Elate, a homebred 5-year-old Medaglia d'Oro mare owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, exited the thriller in fine shape.
The $300,000 Beldame Stakes Sept. 28 at Belmont, which Elate won in 2017, could be her next stop. But down the road, Mott hinted that a longer and bigger prize may be in her future, namely the 1 1/4-mile, $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic against males Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park.
"We'll have to decide about the Beldame or if we wait for the Breeders' Cup, and if we wait for the Breeders' Cup, we'll give strong consideration to the Breeders' Cup Classic," he said.
Mott also did not rule out the Jockey Club Gold Cup as a possibility for Elate due to its 1 1/4-mile distance.
Midnight Bisou also has the 1 1/8-mile Beldame on her agenda.
"I would have to think that's a pretty solid position (at the top of the division), but we'll continue to do what we're doing and enjoy the fact that she's already taken down so much at this point," said Jeff Bloom, whose Bloom Racing Stable owns the 4-year-old filly along with Sol Kumin's Madaket Stables and Allen Racing. "She's been so push-button all year long, and she makes that so easy because with her training, her racing, her shipping, she's just like, 'What do you want me to do?' She just wants to please everybody."
Midnight Bisou's win in the Personal Ensign, a Breeders' Cup Challenge race, earned the daughter of Midnight Lute a free spot in the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.