SARATOGA SPRINGS -- To paraphrase what a wise young man once said: "Code of Honor moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss him."
As they approached the half-mile pole, Tacitus and Mucho Gusto engaged in a spirited duel on the front end of the 150th Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
At a track where photo finishes have practically become the norm recently, it looked like those two might produce another one.
Then a small-ish chestnut, dirt sprayed all over his face and shoulders from having patiently waited for his time in the middle of the 12-horse field, joined them from the outside as the eighth pole flew by. And Code of Honor, ridden by John Velazquez, kissed them goodbye inside the sixteenth pole to win by three lengths in front of a crowd of 48,213 in announced paid attendance.
It was just the second Travers win for the Hall of Fame jockey, and the fourth for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, but the first for him since Coronado's Quest 21 years ago.
As the 68-year-old McGaughey wrily noted: "It doesn't get old, but it can't take that long again."
Code of Honor moved pretty fast. Except for Arrogate's track-record 1:59.36 three years ago, you have to go back to 1992 and Thunder Rumble (2:00.99) to find a better mark for the mile-and-a-quarter Travers. Then it's back to 1989, when McGaughey's first Travers winner, Hall of Famer Easy Goer, ran a 2:00.80.
"I never had any doubts about distance as a problem, just him putting his mind to running," Velazquez said. "Obviously, we've been looking for this kind of performance for a long time. He's a late foal, not really knowing what to do [even though he's] run some really big races. He's never really put it together until today."
"He's been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde horse," McGaughey said. "Today, he put it all together."
Code of Honor, who broke his maiden at Saratoga in his career debut just over a year ago, put himself on the Kentucky Derby trail with a victory in the Fountain of Youth, and he ran well once he got to Churchill Downs, finishing third in the Derby and moving up to second by Maximum Security's disqualification.
McGaughey backed off on the race schedule, though, so much so that he skipped the next two legs of the Triple Crown and took an unconventional Travers route by running Code of Honor in the Dwyer at Belmont Park, which he won. Then he trained his colt, bred and owned by former U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom William S. Farish, up to the Travers.
After a sharp breeze by Code of Honor on the Oklahoma Training Track on Monday, McGaughey could barely contain his anticipation of the Travers, he said.
"I did sleep [Friday night], but it wasn't the best of ones," he said. "I was ready to get it on."
After some hard-luck trips, including a bad stumble at the start of the Jim Dandy, Tacitus was equipped by trainer Bill Mott with short-cup blinkers for the Travers to get him a little more focused on what was in front of him.
He has done well in the biggest races while sitting back, but on Saturday, he and Jose Ortiz were more forwardly placed out of the starting gate and joined the Bob Baffert-trained Mucho Gusto and jockey Joe Talamo on the lead as they got near the half-mile pole.
Those two continued to work steadily to maintain position around the turn, with Tacitus on the inside, and the only threat from behind was Code of Honor, who was 3 1/2 lengths back at the quarter pole but gaining steam.
The momentum never stopped until Code of Honor and Velazquez were galloping out past the wire.
"We broke really well," Ortiz said. "Blinkers on, we thought it would give him speed, and it did. He was closer than I thought, but I just sat on him until he wanted to go. Sit. Sit. Sit. I sat as long as I could, and by the half-mile pole, Joe stayed outside and I was committed to come to the inside, and from there, from the three-eighths pole on, it was a horse race, and the other horse flew by us and beat us."
"He [Mucho Gusto] ran a great race," Baffert's assistant Jimmy Barnes said. "We had reason to jump up at the end and root for him. Take nothing away from the winner. He just breezed by us."
"Obviously, in a horse race you never know what's going to happen," McGaughey said. "But at the three-eighths pole, my confidence wasn't really high, but at the eighth pole it was really high."
"I had one eye on the winner and one eye on mine," Mott said. "It looked like there was a good chance we were going to outduel Mucho Gusto, but the winner, I mean he rolled by pretty fast."
Code of Honor wasn't the only one who put up a nice number.
For the second year in a row, Travers Day generated a record all-sources handle of $52,129,344, and the on-track handle of $11,657,493 was also a record.
Much of that was bet on Tacitus, who went off as the 2-1 favorite.
Another close loss by him ended a tough-luck day for Mott, whose Elate was outdueled by Midnight Bisou in the Personal Ensign. He also had a great shot in the Sword Dancer with Channel Maker, but he finished fourth.
"My horses both were second, one by maybe a hair and the other was a good second," he said. "I've been doing this a long time and when they fire a good shot like that and they try, you've got to be pleased. I want to win, but I don't know how I could have turned it around today in here. I think we made the right choice putting the blinkers on him. My horse was brave. He was good coming through on the inside. No regrets.
"You know what? We'll turn the page," he said, grinning and unfolding his hands as if opening a book, "and we're going to try to win something tomorrow."