SARATOGA SPRINGS — Trainer Shug McGaughey has won the Whitney with a female, with a 3-year-old and in as dramatic fashion as you could imagine.
He’d settle for a nice straightforward, conventional type of win this time.
He’ll saddle 2019 Travers winner Code of Honor in Saturday’s $750,000 feature, one of the crown jewels of the Saratoga Race Course meet since it was first run in 1928.
Code of Honor got a late start to his 2020 campaign, winning the Grade III Westchester at Belmont Park on June 6, and will face just four rivals in the Whitney at a track where he is 2-for-2, including the his career debut in 2018.
He’ll break from post No. 3 and is the 5-2 co-second choice on the morning line.
McGaughey said he’s getting the same feeling heading into the Whitney that he had last year after Code of Honor’s victory in the Dwyer at Belmont, which usually doesn’t act as a Travers prep, but served Code of Honor well.
This time, the chestnut colt is coming off a third-place finish to Vekoma in the Met Mile, but McGaughey said his 4-year-old is ready to take a shot at what would be McGaughey’s fourth Whitney.
“It’s a pretty solid field,” he said at the Whitney draw on Wednesday. “I feel like we’re lucky to be in it, and if he runs his race, they’ll know he’s there.”
Like the Dwyer, the Met Mile was around one turn, and McGaughey believes that Code of Honor will relish a mile and an eighth around two turns at Saratoga.
His Travers win was at a mile and a quarter.
“The Dwyer was one of his better races, but I think now he’s gotten older, he’s gotten stretched out that probably two turns, a mile and an eighth, mile and a quarter is where he’ll run his better races,” McGaughey said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence. He doesn’t seem to have been affected by the Met Mile, so I’ve just got to throw that out. He was fresh last year for the Travers, but I think it’ll be a little different kind of race this year. He ran June 6 and then in the Met Mile, he’s been good up here, so I’m confident. I think he’ll run his race, and if that’s good enough, then we’ll get our picture taken and figure out something else.”
If Code of Honor wins, he would become just the second horse to win the Travers as a 3-year-old and the Whitney the following year.
Will’s Way achieved that in 1996-97.
McGaughey’s Whitney winners include Honor Code in 2015, when he moved from the back of a full field to catch front-runner Liam’s Map in the final stride; Easy Goer in 1989, when he actually ran in the Whitney two weeks before winning the Travers; and Personal Ensign in 1988.
McGaughey’s back-to-backs with two different horses has only been equaled by Scotty Schulhofer, with Colonial Affair in 1994 and Unaccounted For in 1995.
Easy Goer is the last 3-year-old to win the Whitney, and Personal Ensign is the last female to do it.
You also have to go back to her 1988 to find a field smaller than the five running on Saturday — she faced just two horses, Gulch and King’s Swan.
“I had one of the numbers guys call me during the week saying she can win this race if she gets a perfect trip,” McGaughey said. “If you remember, [jockey Angel] Cordero and King’s Swan pushed her way out to the middle of the racetrack, and she was out there kind of the whole way, but she was good enough to win.
“I remember on the west coast they were saying, ‘Well, she only wins at Belmont.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ll take care of that part of it.’ So we took her down to Monmouth, and she won the Molly Pitcher. So Mr. [Ogden] Phipps was actually anxious to start her against colts, and I thought this was the perfect place to do it, in case we were wrong and it took too much out of her, we’d still have enough time for the fall races. We thought this was a pretty good opportunity, plus he didn’t want to duck and run to Chicago or someplace and try the colts.
“He wanted to do it here.”
Although Code of Honor is 2-for-2 on the Saratoga main track and two other Whitney entrants, favorite Tom’s d’Etat and Mr. Buff, have run well here, Mr. Buff’s trainer, John Kimmel, pointed out that that form may not neatly translate to 2020, since the New York Racing Association renovated the main track in the offseason.
But if nothing else, Code of Honor is on familiar ground, where he’s won the first race of his career, and then one of the biggest races of his career.
In the Travers, he caught Mucho Gusto and Tacitus inside the eighth pole to win by three lengths.
“He’s always liked it up here,” McGaughey said. “But like John said, it’s a different main track than it was for the Travers. How much different, I’m not sure. I think Code of Honor likes it up here, he trained good here as a 2-year-old and ran well, and then trained good as a 3-year-old and ran well. And he’s trained well since we’ve been up here.
“So, hopefully he’ll run well again.”