09/25/2011 12:21PM

Talking About To Honor and Serve, and Hansen

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It says a lot about the unsettled nature of the 2011 racing season that, after trouncing a moderate group of fellow 3-year-olds in Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing for his first stakes win of the year, To Honor and Serve has overnight become a popular wise guy horse for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And almost all of what it has to say is not complimentary.

However, it also has a lot to say about To Honor and Serve himself, and much of that is complimentary. Everyone remembers how To Honor and Serve entered 2011 as a top candidate for the Kentucky Derby on the basis of very impressive victories last fall in the Remsen and Nashua Stakes. I was as big a believer in him as anyone because, not only was it obvious that To Honor and Serve had an abundance of talent, he also seemed more likely to get a classic distance than last year’s 2-year-old male champ, Uncle Mo. But To Honor and Serve was profoundly disappointing finishing a distant third in both the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby in his first two starts this year, and while he had a license to be short when he returned early last month from a suspensory issue that knocked him off the Triple Crown trail, the way he chucked it in the stretch of the Amsterdam to finish sixth was also not inspiring.

But To Honor and Serve took a step in the right direction with a Saratoga allowance romp late last month, and he took an even bigger step forward Saturday. Although the field To Honor and Serve mastered in the Pennsylvania Derby was at best good and certainly not great, it was far better than the bunch he beat at Saratoga. What was especially encouraging, however, was the way To Honor and Serve won. One of the knocks on him – and a fair one at that – concerned whether To Honor and Serve was capable of winning a meaningful race without controlling the early pace. That’s how he won the Remsen and Nashua. In his subsequent three stakes losses, he had neither control early, nor the lead. But in the Pennsylvania Derby, To Honor and Serve willingly conceded the early lead, and it did not diminish his effectiveness one bit. That is an undeniable sign of maturity.

The Pennsylvania Derby also had something to say about the form of last month’s Travers, specifically that it is now open to question. The Pennsylvania Derby attracted the two-three-four finishers in the Travers behind Stay Thirsty in Rattlesnake Bridge, J W Blue, and Ruler On Ice. Rattlesnake Bridge raced in close attendance to To Honor and Serve in the early running, but had absolutely no answer when the winner moved to break the race open on the far turn. J W Blue never threatened for so much as a moment. Only Ruler On Ice performed creditably, finishing gamely after being surprisingly far back early to be second. But the 2 ¾ lengths Ruler On Ice gained in the final furlong shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. It was not unlike a football team getting a couple of touchdowns in the last 10 minutes when they were down by 28 points.

I also want to say a brief word about Hansen, the flashy grey, Mike Maker-trained Tapit colt who won his debut at Turfway Park early this month by just over 12 lengths, and who came back to win Saturday’s Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway by just over 13 lengths.

Now, before anyone goes too overboard on Hansen, keep in mind these three things: He has yet to race on dirt, the field he beat Saturday was weak, and despite the fact that he ran away from his opposition through the stretch Saturday, he was actually a tired horse. Just look at the late fractions. But Hansen had a right to be tired late in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, and that is part of the reason why he is intriguing.

Hansen set the pace again Saturday, posting fractions of 23.83, 46.91, and 1:11.48. His pace was much faster than the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies pace (24.12, 48.30, and 1:14.10), or what older females went in the Distaff (24.48, 48.43, and 1:12.73). Hansen’s pace was even faster than what older males went in the ostensible feature, the WinStar Kentucky Cup (24.47, 47.97, and 1:11.82). That Hansen, off of only one sprint race, can set that kind of pace going two turns and still win by a double digit margin regardless of what he was up against makes him, for now, at least, one to keep an eye on.