A year ago, before California Chrome even hinted at his potential and before Bayern ever made his debut, Honor Code was the early favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. He had the look, the pedigree and the connections of a potential superstar, and fans eagerly embraced the belief that he would become just that. They bet him down to 10-1 in Churchill Downs' first Kentucky Derby future pool. That was on the first day of December, a day after he won the Remsen Stakes, with the Derby a bright but distant beacon, five months down the road.
To the Derby, or actually the Triple Crown, 424 horses would be nominated. But expectations were so great, hopes so high, for one of them, Honor Code, that even 152 days before the race fans bet on him enthusiastically. In March he was injured. Because of a slight tear to a suspensory ligament in a hind leg, Honor Code missed the Triple Crown and, well, just about everything else.
And so a year after becoming the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Honor Code has become the most intriguing horse in the country. Is it possible his greatness was only deferred, put on hold, and the potential's still there?
From here, the most intriguing horses are those with unrealized potential, horses who have engendered high hopes, if not grand dreams, and who seem to promise with each appearance that their most important victories and most impressive performances lie ahead of them. California Chrome and Bayern already have proven they're exceptional. But about the most intriguing horses there's an air of mystery. Their careers are compelling stories, page-turners, with a conclusion that's guaranteed to satisfy or surprise. Expectation clings to them. How good can they be?
Anyway, this weekend, Take Charge Brandi and Feathered, who finished 1-2 respectively in the Starlet Stakes at Los Alamitos, could insist on being included on any most-intriguing list, as could Liam's Map, a flashy son of Unbridled's Song who has won consecutive races by a total of 21 lengths and who won his stakes debut Saturday in the Harlan's Holiday at Gulfstream Park. Maybe a youngster will sparkle from Sunday's Springboard Mile field at Remington Park, High Noon Rider perhaps or Shotgun Kowboy.
But for now, from here, these are the most intriguing horses in the country as the sport heads into a new season.
1. Honor Code
In his return to competition, in an otherwise obscure allowance event on Nov. 22 at Aqueduct, he rekindled all those thoughts of superstar potential. He casually left the gate and fell 11 lengths behind; with a quarter-mile remaining in the 6-1/2-furlong sprint, he was still 10 lengths back. He waited in traffic, and when his jockey, Javier Castellano, pointed the big colt in the direction of an opening, Honor Code surged. He looked like an NBA star trying to run down the court without trampling an entire den of Webelos. The performance was very much like his debut, back in August of 2013, when he made up more than 22 lengths to win at Saratoga. At Aqueduct, without feeling Castellano's whip and despite being taken in hand in the final yards, Honor Code made up 10 lengths in the stretch to win by a length over the stakes winner Maleeh.
"He's gotten bigger and stronger," said his trainer, Claude "Shug" McGaughey, about Honor Code. "He looks good, and he's really sound."
Explaining that "there's no rush to do anything," McGaughey said he hasn't picked out the next race for the colt. Nor does the trainer have any definite goals for the son of A.P. Indy. Thinking in terms of the whole season and not just a race or two, McGaughey said he'd like to point Honor Code at major stakes in the spring and summer.
A suspensory injury can be dicey. But in his comeback, Honor Code emphatically insisted that the promise and the potential are still within him. For one reason or another, injury or illness, many of this year's best 3-year-olds had abbreviated campaigns; some failed to realize their potential. But nobody flashed more potential than Honor Code.
He has raced only twice, winning by a total of 12-1/2 lengths, and he never has run in a stakes. But from here, the unbeaten son of Big Brown looks like the most intriguing youngster moving forward into 2015. That doesn't necessarily mean he'll be next year's best 3-year-old or that he'll march unimpeded towards a Triple Crown coronation, but it's impossible to watch this colt and not imagine great possibilities.
He's a huge chestnut, and since he's trained by Bob Baffert, Dortmund will inevitably invite comparisons to another red monster of a horse, Point Given. In 2001, Baffert guided Point Given through a campaign that included victories in the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers and concluded with Horse of the Year honors. And like Point Given, Dortmund possesses rare athleticism for such a big horse. He "could be a good one," Baffert said.
And he already has traveled from California to Kentucky for a race over the Churchill Downs surface, getting a feel for a path he could take again in the spring. This was just a one-mile allowance race, but it became a proving ground, with a large and promising field and Dortmund with a wide trip. Dragging jockey Martin Garcia up to the leaders and racing four-wide in the turn, Dortmund drew clear without encouragement to win by nearly eight lengths in a fast clocking for the day, 1:35.75 (The only other race at one mile that day was run in 1:37.23.) He'll make his stakes debut next week in the Los Alamitos Futurity.
3. Palace Malice
Yes, he already has accomplished much, with seven victories on his resume, including the Belmont Stakes and the Met Mile, and a bankroll of $2.6 million. But he could be capable of much more.
He looked like the best horse in the country through four races last year, and then, after finishing sixth in the Whitney at Saratoga, he was found to have a bone bruise that compromised his performance. He was retired. Since then, however, much to the credit of his owners, Three Chimneys Farm and Dogwood Stable, Palace Malice has resumed training with the goal being a 2015 campaign.
If all goes according to plan, his campaign will begin in May and culminate in October the Breeders' Cup Classic, explained his trainer, Todd Pletcher. In other words, Palace Malice will race in 2015 to take care of unfinished business, for the campaign will also include the Whitney and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
4, 5. The princes
For next year's Kentucky Derby, at the Wynn in Las Vegas, their odds are holding at 60-1, and apparently people are betting on them, proving the ubiquity, if not the immortality, of folly. Neither one ever has raced and one of them hasn't even had a workout in three months, but expectations for them hang in the air, like the Cheshire Cat's grin. They're the princes: Cozmic One, the son of Bernardini and Zenyatta; and Jess's Dream, the son of two Horses of the Year, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.
Not that Bernardini and Curlin didn't have their fans, but Rachel Alexandra and especially Zenyatta were superstars whose appeal reached beyond the sport to grab a larger audience and indeed the popular culture. And so the entire sport will stop to watch when their sons get to the races. Jess's Dream, whose most recent serious workout was on Nov. 23 (a half-mile in 49.56 over Belmont's training track), would seem closer to that big day. But that's not surprising. Zenyatta herself didn't debut until November of her 3-year-old season, and Cozmic One, whose last workout was a slow half-mile back at Belmont in September, appears to taking his time, too.