March 2014 | Strong Prospect Top Billing Hits Derby Trail
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Strong Prospect Top Billing Hits Derby Trail

March 2014 - Terry Conway

So far the flashy chestnut colt has lived up to his name. Top Billing stamped himself as a top-flight Derby prospect with a decisive victory at Gulfstream Park in late January. Dropping eight lengths behind the field of seven after a half mile, the handsome chestnut colt circled the field on the far turn and rolled home a 2¾ lengths winner.

Top Billing made easy work of a first-level allowance field in his third start, winning under a confident ride by Joel Rosario. He hit the wire in a sharp 1:42.66 on a fast track at 1 1/16-mile. His final time was less than a second off the track record after going five wide.

"He was the best horse in the race," Rosario remarked. "He always takes himself back a little bit, but when he's ready to go, he goes. I was very happy with the move he made. He just has such a quick turn of foot and when he's ready, he gives it to you. He's an honest horse."

“That was pretty impressive,” added trainer Shug McGaughey. “I was watching on the TV and all I could see was his number 2. He was back there where I didn’t really want him to be. He’s learning. I thought this was a powerful race today. He ate the dirt today even though Joel took him out away from it. He told me that wasn’t going to be a problem in the future. I just thought he ran an awful good race today.”

Top Billing was one of a string of horses McGaughey sent to Bruce Jackson’s barn at Fair Hill last summer.  The trainer elected to just run the colt at Laurel December 6 off his works at Fair Hill. Top Billing overcame early crowding and rallied from almost 15 lengths to blow away his rivals in the slop by 5 1/4 lengths at six furlongs.

Top Billing appears to have all the tools. He has a nice temperament and is a willing worker who does everything very easily. The colt has a long, fluid stride and in all three of his races he’s shown a devastating turn of foot, both traveling on the rail and barreling down the center of the track. He has scored over a sloppy track and on a fast track, from distances of 6 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles.

Now he has to prove it versus stakes horses and gain the points necessary to quality for the Derby on May 3. He was scheduled to make his stakes debut in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on February 22 at Gulfstream, a key prep for the Grade-1, $1 million Florida Derby on March 29.

Owned and bred by William S. Farish (owner of Lane’s End Farm) and Edward J. Hudson, Top Billing boasts a superlative pedigree. He is a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and the multiple Grade 3-winning A.P. Indy mare Parade Queen. That female family includes two Triple Crown winners, three Belmont winners, two English Derby winners, and a Coaching Club of America winner. His sire and broodmare sire are Breeders’ Cup Classic winners and Horses of the Year. He is a half-brother to the Grade-3 filly Untouched Talent, who is the dam of Bodemeister, the 2012 Arkansas Derby romper and runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

“He went the wrong way on me last summer, he sort of lightened up (weight) more than I liked so I backed off on him and sent him to Fair Hill,” McGaughey acknowledged. “He trained well there and when we brought him down to Florida he was ready to run.”

Top Billing kicked off his 3-year old campaign stretching out from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream on January 3. His attempt to go last-to-first was compromised when the colt was put in a tight squeeze twice in the stretch and fell a neck short of overtaking Commissioner. His Hall of Fame trainer drew a comparison to his 2013 Derby winner.

“He hasn’t raced as much as Orb did at this time last year, but he might be more forward,” noted McGaughey. “I have a better read on him right now than I did with Orb. This horse has an unbelievably good mind. The Fountain of Youth looks like a good spot for him.”

McGaughey had been pondering how to keep Top Billing and Honor Code apart on the Derby Trail. That dilemma was solved when Honor Code sustained bruising in his hind ankles while training for his scheduled 2014 debut in the Fountain of Youth.

“I brought him to a new track at Payson Park (training center in Indiantown, Fla.) and I think he just stressed them a little bit,” said the trainer, who scored his first Kentucky Derby last year with Orb.

The highly regarded son of A. P. Indy recorded his first breeze of the year on February 12 at Gulfstream Park.

“He breezed very well -- I was very pleased with him," McGaughey said. "He seemed to come out of it very well. I jogged him the next morning just to make sure and it seemed like he was none the worse for the wear, so, hopefully, all systems are go."

Honor Code is equine royalty: from the final crop of Hall of Famer A.P. Indy, he is out of a Storm Cat mare who is a granddaughter of Hall of Famer Serena's Song.  One of the top-ranked colts in most Kentucky Derby polls, he showed a ton of class and courage in winning Aqueduct’s 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes on November 30 in his last start. He is owned by Lane's End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm.

Honor Code is now playing catch up. An extremely talented and versatile colt who possesses a monster stretch kick, Honor Code will need to turn in two solid prep races to peak on Derby Day.  McGaughey, who enjoyed a trouble-free winter last season with Orb, likely will point to the Grade-2 $600,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 15.

"I think the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 1 in New York would be too soon," McGaughey related. "Two weeks after that is the Rebel. I think that would be one I could probably make."

Team Valor International could have a Derby contender in Mexikoma.  The colt was purchased after a sparkling 14 ¾ lengths maiden victory at one mile at Delaware Park last September. He earned an 84 Beyer, which made him the fastest juvenile colt in North American on dirt around two turns this season. Trainer Rick Mettee, based at Fair Hill, has a resume that features years of training Goldphin horses in Europe and Dubai.

“It wasn’t even the margin or the speed figures that impressed me most; it was the way he found that extra gear through that unprecedented final quarter mile,” said Team Valor president Barry Irwin. “Even if he ran against the biggest bums in captivity or was working alone in the morning for any horse, let alone a two-year old to generate a 24 second final quarter going a mile around two turns is mindboggling.”

A son of Birdstone  out of the Toccet mare Toccet Over, Mexikoma’s next appearance was in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park in November.  A troubled start left the colt dead last. He swung out off the rail but got boxed in and had his momentum stopped at a crucial point. Once Mexikoma found daylight he hit another gear, closing powerfully and kept rolling to the wire. He came in sixth, but his finish was much better than it looked on paper. If Mexikoma can build on that he should be in good shape when he’s entered into a top stakes race at Oaklawn Park or the Fairgrounds in New Orleans in March.

Back in 2006 Mike Trombetta became a major player in the Triple Crown scene with Sweetnorthernsaint. The speedy colt was the betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby and runner-up in the Preakness Stakes. Eight years later Trombetta is eying the Derby Trail again.

In the $100,000 Miracle Wood at Laurel Racetrack on January 25, Extrasexyhippzster waited behind traffic, then burst through an opening at the top of the stretch and pulled away to an impressive score over five other 3-year-olds, completing the mile in 1:36.75.

Foaled and raised at Shirley Lojeski’s Lojeski Farms in Emmaus, Pa., Extrasexyhippzster is co-owned by Yardley, Pa. resident Michael Kirwan and Ed Hipps. He was co-bred by Toni Kirwan and Hipps. The colt is by Stroll and the first foal from the Freud mare Extra Sexy Psychic, who was also co-bred and raced by the same connections. The Derby hopeful now has a 3-0-1 record from five starts with earnings of $171,724.

"It was so impressive the way he rated behind all that speed,” Trombetta noted. “He was kind to Julian (jockey Pimentel) the whole way. When he found that spot at the top of the lane I was very impressed with the way he went forward. This time of the year you start trying them a little further to see if they're going to be able to get the longer distances and for me today he passed the test. I don't know where I'll run him back but the obvious is to continue to add distance and two turns."

Coup de Grace
Owner Rick Porter has decided to remove Coup de Grace from consideration for the Kentucky Derby following his 10th place effort in the Holy Bull Stakes on January 25. It was his stakes and two-turn debut. Previously two-for-two, the son of Tapit was a $300,000 Keeneland September purchase.

"He breezed well afterwards, but we're not sure what we're going to do with him yet," trainer Chad Brown said. "The Holy Bull wasn't a good gauge for us with how the horse will handle two turns. He didn't break well and then he rushed up there and got a little rank, and was going a little fast on the front. The whole race unfolded exactly the way we didn't want, so we're just going to draw a line through that and go from there. We’re not sure where we’ll run him and at what level. We're going to give him a nice rhythm of breezing and then pick a spot."