04/01/2017 5:58PM

Honorable Duty runs down Breaking Lucky in New Orleans Handicap

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Lou Hodges Jr./Hodges Photoraphy
Honorable Duty (outside) prevails by a neck over Breaking Lucky in the New Orleans Handicap.

NEW ORLEANS – Tasked with running down a loose leader on a racing surface that had been carrying speed, the response from Honorable Duty came with no hesitation: “Aye-aye, sir!”

The only horse closing from off the pace in the Grade 2, $400,000 New Orleans Handicap was closing just well enough, as Honorable Duty caught a game pacesetting Breaking Lucky in the final yards to win by a neck. It was another five lengths back to Iron Fist in third, as favored Noble Bird could do nothing with a perfect trip.

“When I squeezed on him to go, down the lane he laid his neck down and he’s jumping from here to the end of the paddock,” said James Graham, who won his second New Orleans Handicap in three years, having captured the 2015 edition with Call Me George.

Honorable Duty, a 5-year-old gelding by Distorted Humor out of the A.P. Indy mare Mesmeric, was bred and first campaigned by Juddmonte Farms, which sold him in 2015 after three modest starts. He was purchased by David Ross’s DARRs Inc and turned over to trainer Brendan Walsh, who, after six starts and some progress, decided last fall that Honorable Duty needed to be gelded. The horse was acting up badly at times and wasn’t focused on racing.

“We decided we had to do this or he wasn’t going to be anything,” Walsh said.

Honorable Duty won the Tenacious Stakes here in January in his first start as a gelding, had to miss the Louisiana Stakes in January with a minor issue, and won the Grade 3 Mineshaft here last month by a half-length. All good performances, but Honorable Duty hit his peak Saturday.

Breaking Lucky had the rail, and Luis Contreras, having watched speed holding very well on the main track in the day’s first dirt races, sent his horse to the lead.

“I see all the races today were speed. He broke good, and I gave him a little more chance to get in front of horses, and once I was on the lead he settled easy and relaxed for me the whole way, even with a horse pressuring me to the outside,” Contreras said.

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That horse was Iron Fist, and the pair zoomed through a half-mile in a testing 46.63 seconds and six furlongs in 1:10.35. Honorable Duty was fifth early but far, far behind the lead pack of three, and the gap still was wide three furlongs out. Honorable Duty had closed some ground at the quarter pole, but still had much work to do when Graham steered him to the outside three-sixteenths of a mile from the finish. Breaking Lucky remained clear to the sixteenth pole, even changing back to his proper lead, but Honorable Duty was relentless and got up by a neck.

“The last sixteenth of a mile he was really digging in,” Contreras said. “It’s just too bad he got me.”

Honorable Duty now has six wins from 12 starts and is perfect since being gelded. He was timed in 1:48.35 for 1 1/8 miles on a fast track and paid $18.80. Walsh said the logical spot for his next start is the Alysheba Stakes in May at Churchill Downs.

“He had to run to get that horse; he sprinted all the way to the wire,” Graham said. “He’s getting better, too. I think he’s going to be a nicer horse in the summer and even in a fall campaign.”

“I think we’re sussing him out,” Walsh said. “The guys that ride him and groom him, they’re doing a super job. Every little thing counts. He ran hard today, but he loves to do this.”