By J.J. Hysell
Shug McGaughey’s Kentucky Derby dreams came true last year with Orb. This year, he’s in prime position to make it two in a row.
McGaughey boasts two top prospects and a third under-the-radar possible contender. Honor Code, who beat Saturday’s Holy Bull winner Cairo Prince in a gutsy effort in the Grade 2 Remsen in November, is his most popular Derby hopeful. The son of A.P. Indy, 2 of 3 in his young career, is training steadily at Payson Park in Florida for his 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 22. He’s dominated the Derby Future Wagers so far, most recently listed at 10-1 in the Wynn’s Las Vegas book. He also closed at 10-1 in Churchill Downs’ first Derby Future Wager in November.
While Honor Code sits atop most Derby lists, In the Money has ranked one of McGaughey’s other 3-year-olds, Top Billing, much higher than his stable mate since December.
Top Billing, who landed on the Derby radar with his eye-catching debut over the slop at Laurel on Dec. 6, is 2 of 3 and has yet to try stakes company. His powerful allowance win on the Holy Bull undercard drew almost as much attention as Cairo Prince’s sharp victory in the Holy Bull.
Top Billing, a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, features a pedigree more suited for the first Saturday in May. He isn’t dependent on a pace scenario and his pedigree is loaded with stamina influence.
McGaughey will seek to keep these two separated on the trail. The next start for Top Billing is yet to be determined.
“The one thing we’re not going to do is overcook him early — that’s not going to happen,” McGaughey said. “We’ll just have to wait and see how he comes out of this. I was a little nervous about running him back in three weeks, but he trained well and came out of it well. It does show he can do it.
“This horse has an unbelievably good mind. When he schooled the other day, he was perfect, and he was perfect again today. If we do have to send him somewhere, that won’t be a problem.”
While Mr. Speaker will head back to turf after finishing seventh in his first try on dirt in the Holy Bull, there’s another contender hiding out in McGaughey’s barn.
Ironicus, a son of Distorted Humor out of the A.P. Indy mare Meghan’s Joy, was smashing in his second start, also his 3-year-old debut. He hit the gate at the start, which left him last in the nine-horse field of the 1 /16-mile race on turf at Gulfstream Park. That didn’t deter him, as he launched a superb stretch rally to pass the field and win by a length and a quarter.
Ironicus began his career in a maiden race on dirt won by Surfing U S A that also featured highly-regarded Juba on Nov. 30 at Aqueduct. While Ironicus showed little in that first start – finishing 12th among 13 – he did get bumped at the start and at one point was seven-wide. Chalk that debut up to experience. He’s trained very respectably on dirt at Payson Park, and if he gets a second chance on dirt, look for improvement, particularly if Joel Rosario stays aboard.
Ironicus is half-brother of Seal Cove and Quiet Harbor, both stakes winners on turf, but is also a sibling to dirt winners: Hunting won the Grade 3 Stuyvesant Handicap at Aqueduct (1 1/8-miles); Norumbega won two races on dirt at 1 1/8-miles and was second in the Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct.