Trainer Shug McGaughey misjudged the wire.
Jockey Mike Smith misjudged how his horse, Liam’s Map, would respond to the stick.
Honor Code and jockey Javier Castellano, meanwhile, had everything under control from the back of the field. Barely.
As many as 19 lengths out of it and in last place through a half-mile, the McGaughey-trained Honor Code used his customary late rush to pass everybody, last of all Liam’s Map and Smith in the final jump to win the $1.25 million Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
The nine-horse field included seven Grade I winners, and now Honor Code, co-owned by Lanes End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm, is a multiple Grade I winner. He also can stake a claim as the leader of the older male dirt division, for the time being.
It was a gratifying victory for McGaughey, who last won the Whitney in 1989 with Easy Goer, because it answered some lingering doubts from the public about his horse. It was also a measure of how close the finish was that he initially thought his horse had been beaten by Liam’s Map.
“I actually misjudged the finish line,” McGaughey said. “I thought he was second, beat a half-length or a neck or something.
“The horse who ran second ran a fabulous race. He did all the work and probably helped us out a little bit with the pace scenario. But Honor Code proved once again that he’s a very, very good horse.”
Except for how close the finish was, Honor Code’s Whitney victory was reminiscent of his career debut, also at Saratoga, in 2013. He was 22 lengths out of it and splashed across a sloppy track to win by 41⁄2 lengths.
Lightly raced last year as a 3-year-old, the son of A.P. Indy won his 4-year-old debut in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap in March, and used a big stretch kick to beat Tonalist in the Grade I Met Mile on the undercard of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown-clinching Belmont Stakes on June 6.
“Everybody keeps telling me how deep these fields are, but he keeps winning,” McGaughey said.
The lightly-raced 4-year-old Liam’s Map, who came into the Whitney on an impressive four-race winning streak, took the field through very fast early fractions of 22.79 for the quarter-mile, 46.00 for the half and 1:09.72 for three-quarters of a mile.
Still, he was able to open up his lead to 41⁄2 lengths as he straightened into the stretch.
By then, Moreno had dropped well out of second, and it was Honor Code who loomed behind.
Smith, who had never ridden Liam’s Map, gave his colt a smack with the left-handed stick at the eighth pole to keep him busy.
It did not produce the desired effect, as Liam’s Map, whose 117-pound weight assignment was seven fewer than Honor Code’s, lost a little bit of momentum.
“All was going well. The only thing I wish I could’ve done different was I asked him at the eighth pole, I hit him left-handed once, and when I did, he kind of resented it,” Smith said. “I sure didn’t want to hit him again, so I just had to hand-ride from there, and I get caught.
“If he was in company, he probably wouldn’t have minded it as much. But because he was by himself, he was like, ‘Whoa, hey, what’re you doing? I’m running.’ And I was like, ‘They’re coming!’ ”
By “they,” he mostly meant Honor Code, with 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist closing well behind him but never a real threat.
As Liam’s Map continued to tire and the wire got closer, Honor Code reached out in the final strides to get there in time.
“It was a gallant effort, and he ran beautiful,” Smith said of Liam’s Map. “I knew Honor Code was going to come running, so I wanted another gear out of him, just to make sure. No one really knew about it, because he’d never been hit before. It’s something we found out today.”
“He ran unbelievably well, setting those fractions to start and being there to the end,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “He just couldn’t hold off a really good horse.”
V.E. Day and Wicked Strong, 1-2 in the Travers last year in a similar finish to Saturday’s Whitney, were fifth and fourth, respectively.
Coach Inge was scratched from the Whitney field by Pletcher to wait for a later race, perhaps the Woodward on closing weekend or the Pacific Classic.
“It was a spectacular race, and a spectacular horse,” McGaughey said. “People have always held Honor Code in high regard, but wondered if he could win around two turns. I was getting a little bit tired of the tweets and the questions, and I know that’s all part of it. I’m a big guy, I can handle it. But I’m glad it’s over with, I’m glad we won.”