It’s safe to say that Honor Code has been one of the more popular horses to race in the last decade. The last elite son of legendary stallion A. P. Indy, the beautiful dark bay ridgling compiled a decorated resume over the course of three seasons, culminating with an Eclipse Award as champion older male of 2015.
But Honor Code showed significant talent right from the start. When he won his debut as a 2-year-old during the summer of 2013 at Saratoga, racing fans couldn’t help but wonder if they were looking at a star in the making. It’s not every day you see a horse charge from 22 3/4 lengths behind — with just three-eighths of a mile remaining — to dominate a 7-furlong maiden sprint by 4 1/2 lengths.
Certainly Honor Code’s debut was visually stunning, but it was his initial stakes triumph that cemented the Shug McGaughey trainee as a top-class prospect. Favored at 4-5 in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen (G2) at Aqueduct, Honor Code displayed a much different style than in his debut. There was no furious charge from far behind, no blowout margin of victory. Instead, he showed versatility and unwavering determination in the face of adversity.
Although no one knew it at the time, the 2013 Remsen field was packed with talent. There was Cairo Prince, fresh off a victory in the Nashua (G2) and destined to win the Holy Bull (G2). There was Intense Holiday, future winner of the Risen Star (G2) and a competitor in the Kentucky Derby. Wicked Strong would go on to win the Wood Memorial (G1) and finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby, while Matuszak would place in multiple stakes events and compete in the Belmont Stakes.
But the quality of the competition wasn’t the only formidable obstacle facing Honor Code. When the starting gates opened, the race began unfolding in a manner McGaughey later described as “peculiar,” though downright bizarre wouldn’t have been an exaggeration.
With the exception of long shot Master Lightning, absolutely no one displayed any interest in setting the pace. Master Lightning himself wound up leading almost by default while Mental Iceberg settled in second place under a very strong hold. Honor Code — normally a deep, deep closer — found himself racing in fourth place along the rail, just three lengths from the lead.
Traveling around the first turn, the opening quarter-mile elapsed in just :25.84, but even slower fractions were still to come. Javier Castellano, riding Honor Code, detected the pedestrian tempo and smoothly guided Honor Code between runners to secure a challenging position. Anyone wondering how a deep closer like Honor Code could possibly be pressing the pace received their answer when the timer revealed the second quarter-mile to have elapsed in :26.90, producing a snail-like half-mile in :52.74.
“I felt the pace was slow. The opportunity was there; I took it,” explained Castellano. “I know he's a come-from-behind horse, but the pace was slow. I didn't want to fight him.”
The challenges, however, were just beginning. The pace remained slow through six furlongs in 1:17.56, then intensified dramatically as the field rounded the final turn. While Honor Code pulled up alongside Master Lightning, Cairo Prince suddenly unleashed a burst of acceleration on the outside, swinging into contention with a seemingly winning move. Following a rapid fourth quarter-mile in :23.57, Cairo Prince was half a length clear of Honor Code, and there was only an eighth of a mile remaining.
But Honor Code wasn’t finished yet.
“I think Cairo Prince tried to make the strong, sweeping move and tried to get the jump,” said Castellano. “My horse is a big, long-striding horse, and he anticipated it a little bit. He found a second gear and he came back.”
Indeed, Honor Code battled back down the lane, tenaciously regaining lost ground even as the final furlong elapsed in a blazing :11.79 seconds. Proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that his turn-of-foot was effective even under unfavorable circumstances, Honor Code came surging back through tight quarters along the rail to hit the wire on virtually even terms with Cairo Prince.
Track announcer Tom Durkin perfectly communicated the tight nature of the photo finish: “Oh, that was close!” Durkin exclaimed. “Did Honor Code come back? Or did Cairo Prince hold on?”
No one knew for certain, but the photo finish camera revealed Honor Code to be the winner by a nose in 1:52.92, with Wicked Strong rallying to finish just a half-length behind Cairo Prince. It was a thrilling finish among three above-average juveniles, with the rapid final three furlongs in :35.36 standing as a testament to their talent even more than the slow early pace.
“I thought he got beat leaving the eighth pole, but he showed a lot of guts coming back,” said McGaughey. Addressing the early pace, McGaughey summed up the feelings of many handicappers: “I was shocked. Shocked.”
Tough competition, a pedestrian pace, a complete change in running style — any one of these obstacles can be sufficient to beat a good horse. Combining all three can be a recipe for certain defeat. Yet Honor Code conquered them all with aplomb, foreshadowing his future emergence as a champion.
J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.