This Side Up: Man of Honor Out to Catch a Rising Tide

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Honor A.P.Benoit

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In a landscape where so many fixed points have suddenly melted into a mirage–Saturday, remember, was supposed to be the final leg of the Triple Crown–trainers are perhaps better qualified than most to navigate a way forward. For the unchanging cycles of the backstretch, feeding horses and breezing them and hosing them down and walking the shedrow, must be constantly adapted to the flesh-and-blood unpredictability of the Thoroughbred.

In normal times, at least, races are like the high tide: consult the handbook, and you’ll know post-time to the minute. Then you adjust your own schedules accordingly. Each workout is like riding a wave. Catch the seventh, they say. But what sets apart the best trainers is not just an ability to count: whether that equates to eighths of a mile, or scoops of oats, or red blood cells. It’s about that nuanced ability to read the undertow, the currents beneath the superficial ebb and flow of surf.

John Shirreffs could doubtless render that analogy more coherent, having preceded his long immersion in the Thoroughbred by learning still more elemental rhythms of nature on a surfboard. Maybe he was always a patient guy, anyway. But there isn’t a trainer in the world I would sooner entrust with the delicate, incremental conversion of equine potential into achievement.

Those familiar with his artistry know how many horses–from Zenyatta (Street Cry {Ire}) herself to the barn’s latest distaff darling, the one-eyed Hard Not To Love (Hard Spun)–he has rescued from the oblivion that would almost certainly have consumed them in more industrial operations. Unfortunately, Shirreffs brings such monastic self-effacement to a profession not short of brash competition that his genius has yet to be dragged, blinking in dismay at the garish lights of publicity, into the Hall of Fame. But that only diminishes the institution, not the man. Certainly those contemporaries who have already been inducted will only consider their distinction complete once it is shared with Shirreffs.

At the best of times, his modesty would be appalled by any such suggestion. But today, of all days, he’d be entitled to feel vexed as well. Because there’s already pressure enough on Honor A.P. (Honor Code), without anyone goading fate.

Nonetheless many of us are anticipating a rather more persuasive Classic rehearsal from this smashing colt in the GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby than the one offered by Giacomo (Holy Bull) when fourth in the 2005 running. Of course, the way Shirreffs subsequently peaked Giacomo in the GI Kentucky Derby reminds us that Saturday is only a battle, not the whole war. But there can still be much optimism for Honor A.P.’s rematch with Authentic (Into Mischief), who repelled that promising move he made in the GII San Felipe S.

Most obviously, his experience and exertion that day–his first start since breaking his maiden last fall–should yield positive dividends in a horse previously held up with a foot bruise. This time, moreover, the presence of the fast and ardent Shooters Shoot (Competitive Edge) may prevent Authentic controlling the tempo even as he steps up in distance.

In the San Felipe, he could lean against the bar and wait for Honor A.P. to step up and buy all the drinks. True, Authentic looked far more professional than he had in the GIII Sham S., and such an effortless stride will surely keep going. If he is to handle a 20-horse stampede at Churchill, however, it would make sense to invite a little flexibility. Never mind the other 18: something will have to give even against barnmate Charlatan (Speightstown), if neither has learned to rate before September.

A big day, anyhow, for the theory that Into Mischief’s stock will stretch their trademark speed as his better books kick in. His farm seems confident: Authentic has already been reserved a place alongside his sire, Spendthrift having evidently been encouraged by Goldencents to play up their winnings and found a dynasty.

They will do well, however, to emulate the Lane’s End model celebrated in the naming of Authentic’s big rival Saturday. As an $850,000 Saratoga yearling, Honor A.P is the most expensive member of his sire’s first crop. (His dam Hollywood Story (Wild Rush) was a dual Grade I winner for Shirreffs.) CRK Stable named him with due deference to his grandsire A.P. Indy, whose death in February at the age of 31 placed in melancholy perspective the shocking loss this week of Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song). Certainly the Lane’s End patriarch made the most of his longevity, both as a sire of sires and broodmare sire, and perhaps his grandson will sketch out an apt eulogy Saturday.

Shirreffs also saddles Midcourt (Midnight Lute) for CRK Stable in the GI Hollywood Gold Cup. This blossoming animal, who started in another barn and missed his whole sophomore campaign, attests eloquently to the patience of his trainer. After only breaking his maiden at age four, he has been moving pretty seamlessly through the ranks ever since.

However Shirreffs fares Saturday, it’s good to see such renewal of momentum for a gentleman who, besides his professional mastery, is no less uncommon for his intelligence and decency. Last year, after a couple of lean campaigns, he was back up to 22%. Mind you, having never trained by numbers, Shirreffs should no more be judged by mere stats than by the single racemare with whom his name will be forever synonymous.

The grandstands will be eerily quiet Saturday, as compared with the day Zenyatta won the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic–complementing, lest we forget, the barn’s GI Ladies’ Classic success with Life Is Sweet (Storm Cat). But the pandemic may ultimately prove to have conspired in favor of a regime that has only ever forced three other maturing colts, besides Giacomo, into a Kentucky Derby staged on its usual date.

Shirreffs would never compromise on a horse’s best interests, whether for the vanity of the Derby trail or any other reason. So while Honor A.P. can only benefit from the experience Saturday, luckily his trainer has plenty to spare.

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