Monday Morning Trainer: Last hurrah

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Plenty of days remain on the calendar for the year – 29 in fact if Monday is counted – yet everyone is already starting to think about 2014.

Late November and early December has that effect. It does every year.

The last major graded stakes of the year were run last weekend in New York, Kentucky, Illinois and essentially California, so really the looking ahead mindset is justified. Victories by Will Take Charge, Flat Out and Last Gunfighter capped productive campaigns for the veterans. That trio started the year with graded wins in March and April and they kept it going right though to the last day of November.

Victories by Honor Code, Tapiture, Stopchargingmaria and Vexed were more than a coronation of a successful season, rather signs of promise for the year ahead. Time to turn the page and look at the next generation of possible stars if you will. Of course that aforementioned trio will make noise in 2014, but the youngsters annually get the lion’s share of the headlines and the leader of that next generation definitely comes to the table with proven connections.

Honor Code was the buzz horse from the moment he came from nowhere to break his maiden in his Saratoga debut the last day of August, and maybe even before that as he cut an imposing presence training at the Oklahoma Training Track well before the Spa meet opened.

Honor Code raced much closer to the pace in Saturday’s Grade 2 Remsen than he did in his previous two starts – he needed to considering the early splits for the 9-furlong race went in :25.84, 52.74 and 1:17.56 – and still finished in the end. He won by a nose over the late-running Cairo Prince, who also figures to be on every expert’s and not-so-expert’s Kentucky Derby contender’s watch list.

Trainer Shug McGaughey, who won last year’s Derby with Orb, will bring the A.P. Indy colt to Florida to begin his quest for the 2014 spring classics. Out of a granddaughter of Serena’s Song, the stakes-winning Storm Cat mare Serena’s Cat, Honor Code is co-owned by his breeder Dell Ridge Farm and Lane’s End owner Will Farish.

The connections of Tapiture thought enough of his debut – a 4 1/2-length defeat to eventual Grade 1 Hopeful winner Strong Mandate in mid-August at Saratoga – to try him in stakes company for his next start. The Tapit colt finished third in that try but could manage no better in his subsequent effort again against maidens.

Tapiture rewarded them for their perseverance with a maiden victory that came in Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club about an hour and a half after Honor Code’s victory. Doubtful that Tapiture would come close to the level of buzz Honor Code will get this winter, but it’s worth noting that his win on closing day at Churchill came in his first try around two turns and in good time of 1:43.51.

Flat good

Flat Out’s record in one-turn mile races coming into Saturday’s Grade 1 Cigar Mile wasn’t great. He was a winner in just one of four attempts at the trip, with that win coming earlier in the season in Belmont’s Grade 3 Westchester. He was also a terror at Belmont, with five of his previous eight wins there.

Elsewhere, not so much. The old veteran hadn’t won a race away from Belmont since taking an allowance-optional claimer back in December 2010 at Fair Grounds when he was in the care of Scooter Dickey.

Those dubious marks, along with the ballyhooed presence of Breeders’ Cup winners Groupie Doll and Goldencents and the always well-backed Verrazano, made Flat Out the fifth choice in the field of 10 for the Cigar Mile. The 7-year-old son of Flatter made it look relatively easy though, took advantage of some traffic trouble by his opponents, and won by 1 1/4 lengths over Private Zone, two races removed from a victory in the Grade 1 Vosburgh yet more than 32-1 on the board. Verrazano, Groupie Doll, Clearly Now, Forty Tales and Goldecents were next across the finish, all but one shorter odds than the winner.

The odds of Flat Out returning for an 8-year-old campaign could be fairly good, too.

Earlier this year owner Art Preston said he’d prefer to watch Flat Out compete on the racetrack rather than see the horse retired. Plenty of high-profile horses that raced in 2013 – classic winners Animal Kingdom, Orb and Oxbow, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, Verrazano, Paynter, Take Charge Indy, and others – will go off to the breeding shed in 2014.

Perhaps Preston and Preston Stable’s racing manager Rich Decker will again consider another campaign and look to add to the horse’s bankroll of $3,645,383.

Read more about Flat Out, a true throwback.

Title chase

Friday’s Grade 1 Clark Handicap was billed (right here in fact) as a chance for Will Take Charge and Game On Dude to solidify their Eclipse Award credentials.

The Clark results – Will Take Charge coming from behind to catch Game On Dude at the wire and win by a head – probably erased the tile hopes of the likes of Orb, Palace Malice and definitely of Goldencents.

The Clark also breathed new life into the champion older male chances of Game On Dude, or at least partially justified those resigned to writing infinite amounts of words about championships largely decided in October and November and not handed out until mid-January.

Signs of winter

The influx of new residents in stallion barns across the country, competitors from the flat and jump racing worlds being turned out for some much deserved R&R and humans trying to exercise off some of those early holiday calories are not the only signs of winter in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.

Churchill wrapped its fall meet over the weekend and racing in Kentucky shifts to Turfway Park near Cincinnati for its annual four-month haul before spring blooms at Keeneland opens its doors in April.

Big fields await for the two daily turf races and relatively small fields were drawn for the first three cards this week at Aqueduct, which will shift racing to the inner track soon, the last reminder that it’s winter in New York in case anyone needed one after single-digit overnight temperatures and snow in the air and on the ground upstate last weekend.

Other tracks in the abovementioned areas forge ahead, too, with wintertime products of forgettable races put in front of small crowds on site or paying attention at home.

But alas, one track’s loss is almost always another track’s gain.

The barn areas at Fair Grounds, Palm Meadows, Payson Park and Gulfstream Park are filling up fast. Hollywood Park closes its doors for good a little more than a week after the Dec. 14 Grade 1 CashCall Futurity, but Santa Anita is ready and always fills the void with its strong meet that annually opens the day after Christmas.