Duty calls in Fayette

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Brendan Walsh finished training his string on a picture-perfect fall morning in Kentucky a week into the Keeneland meeting before taking a few minutes to discuss Proctor’s Ledge, his entrant in the upcoming Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, and a few other timely subjects.

Just as that casual interview was complete the subject wove its way to Walsh’s season – a career best by every metric that matters – and a big part of the reason why.

“Honorable Duty? He just got in the other day, want to see him?” Walsh said before turning on the heel of his boot and stepping into the shedrow of his barn in the Keeneland stable area.

Honorable Duty, who galloped in an early set that morning, didn’t pay his visitors much attention when they arrived outside his stall. The 5-year-old son of Distorted Humor, who runs in Saturday’s Grade 2 Hagyard Fayette on the final day of the Keeneland fall meet, couldn’t even bother to turn around after some mild prodding from Walsh.

“He’s a cool horse, a pretty horse,” Walsh said, pointing out the obvious even in the shade of the stall.

Honorable Duty, bought by David Ross’ DARRS Inc. for $130,000 at the 2015 Keeneland November breeding stock sale, brings a good-looking record into Saturday’s $200,000 Fayette. He’s won three of five with two seconds and earned $609,520 in 2017, including a 4 3/4-length win last time out in the Grade 3 Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs.

He’s 9-5 on the morning line for the 1 1/8-mile Fayette, against the likes of multiple graded stakes-winning 3-year-old McCraken and $2,238,028-earner and multiple Grade 1-placed Neolithic.

Walsh expected a big effort from Honorable Duty that mid-October morning, even before breezing the gelding twice over the main track Oct. 14 and Oct. 21.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him either,” Walsh said, standing outside Honorable Duty’s stall. “It’s like he took a new step forward last time. After he ran in the Stephen Foster (June 17), I backed off him for a month and he came back, it’s like he’s got a calmness about him since he came back.”

Walsh purposely gave Honorable Duty time after the Foster, skipping the chance to run at Saratoga in any of the top races for older horses or even the Alydar Stakes, where he finished fourth last year. He noticed the change during the time away and once he got him going again in the weeks leading up to the Sept. 30 Lukas Classic.

“I said to Tom (Molloy), my assistant, in the morning, I said, ‘this horse is either going to get beat today or he’s going to gallop. He’s different,’ ” Walsh said. “He was really well behaved and he went out and absolutely galloped.”

Not that Honorable Duty wasn’t already productive – he’d won the Tenacious in December, Grade 3 Mineshaft in February and Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap in April before a close second in the Grade 2 Alysheba on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. Walsh attributed the difference in both the time off and Honorable Duty getting re-adjusted after being gelded last fall.

“We gelded him last year and he went straight into his work again,” Walsh said. “We were running him, running him, and he never really had a chance to adjust. Since the Foster he’s calmed down.

“Before we gelded him we had to ride him out in blinkers or he wouldn’t stay on the ground, he would be rearing up. He was a bad actor. Bad.”

One bad incident came in the 2016 Alydar at Saratoga.

Walsh liked Honorable Duty’s chances in the race, even though it came up a little tougher than he expected. He breezed well coming into the 9-furlong race and trained just as well the other mornings. All bets were off the afternoon of the Alydar.

“When we ran him at Saratoga he got down to the gate and started fooling around and he got in a fight with (the assistant starter),” Walsh said, not blaming the gate crew. “If you get in a fight with him you’re in trouble. We might as well have pulled him up the second he came out of the gate. And he still didn’t run terrible, like fourth or fifth.”

“Then we brought him to Churchill and ran him in the Lukas. He came out of the paddock, Robby Albarado was on him and then he stuck his head between his legs and dropped Robby. He was on the pony, then he went down to the gate, started screwing around behind the gate and ran poorly. … After that I was like, that’s it.”

Gelded after the Lukas – officially Dec. 9, 2016 in his past performances but it was prior to that – Honorable Duty returned at Fair Grounds in mid-December and started his three-race win streak in the Tenacious. He’s won four of six since being gelded with two seconds, on a speed-favoring sloppy track in the Alysheba and to probably Breeders’ Cup Classic favorite and Horse of the Year contender Gun Runner in the Foster.

Walsh is hopeful for another try in a Grade 1 at Churchill this fall – in the Nov. 24 Clark Handicap – if all goes well in the Fayette and then back to Fair Grounds for the winter and spring.

“In New Orleans he really took off,” Walsh said. “We freshened him up and he loved it down there. Hopefully we can do that again, freshen a little bit and run in the races down there.”