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

Honor A.P. clinched a spot in the Kentucky Derby ahead of the Belmont Stakes, edging Authentic by 2 3/4 lengths in a late push to win the Santa Anita Derby.

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!”