To Honor and Serve would not be denied victory in the $750,000 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga Race Course Sept. 1, holding off the late challenge of 4-5 favorite Mucho Macho Man to earn his second grade I by a neck (VIDEO).
The 4-year-old son of Bernardini completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.56 for Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Plantation, taking charge at the head of the lane for John Velazquez after sitting third behind pacesetters Rule and Trickmeister to the final turn.
Mucho Macho Man, off last of seven at the start and pinned on the rail by Stay Thirsty while racing fourth, finally found running room as the field turned for home but could not pass the victor. Cease was 2 3/4 lengths back in third.
"I'm thrilled," remarked Weber, whose Live Oak won the 1992 Woodward with Sultry Song. "I think he's a marvelous horse. Each opportunity presents new challenges and sometimes you're on your game, and they can't tell you, 'Hey, it's not my day,' so, he is what he is. He's one of the best-looking horses in his group, and I think he's performed very well."
To Honor and Serve raced third in the early going outside Rule, who had been hustled out after the break by jockey Ramon Dominguez. The frontrunner went a quarter in :23.70 and a half in :47.45 while Trickmeister prompted in second through three-quarters in 1:10.93.
"The trip was perfect," Velazquez said. "I thought those two horses might go, and Mike Smith would take back (on Mucho Macho Man), and I expected they were going to send Rule from the rail. It worked out perfect. I talked with Bill, he said, 'Don't get into a wrestling match with him; just kind of let him do a little more.'
"After the half mile pole, going to the three-eighths, I gave him his head and let him get a nice rhythm. He got to the quarter pole in hand without asking him to do anything."
To Honor and Serve made his move approaching the far turn, cruising up outside to strike the lead. Having dispatched the pacesetter in upper stretch, he soon found Mucho Macho Man breathing down his neck. The Suburban Handicap (gr. II) winner ranged up at his flank to engage in a long battle down the lane.
"The break cost him the race," trainer Kathy Ritvo said of her second-place finisher. "I just didn't want to break that bad and give the other horses a couple of lengths. He ran a good race. I was hoping he was going to catch To Honor and Serve, but he's a tough horse to catch."
Sent off as the second choice at odds of 7-2, To Honor and Serve returned $9.30, $3.60, and $2.60. Mucho Macho Man paid $2.50 and $2.10. Cease paid $2.90. Trickmeister, Stay Thirsty, Rule, and Gourmet Dinner completed the order of finish.
It was just a second win of the season for the Bill Mott-trained runner, who took the April 28 Westchester Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont Park. He was fourth last time out in the July 7 Suburban and was third in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) behind Shackleford and Caleb's Posse in May.
"I told my story the last time about how I thought the heat had him agitated in the Suburban, and he didn't do very well in the 97 degrees that day," Mott remarked. "I think he just threw a real stinker and he did come back today and prove he was a pretty darn good horse."
To Honor and Serve was bred in Kentucky by Twin Creeks Farm, Larry Byer, and Rancho San Miguel and is out of the Deputy Minister mare Pilfer. Four years ago, Taylor Made Sales Agency, agent, consigned him as a weanling to the Keeneland November breeding stock sale. Sommer Smith, agent, purchased the colt for $250,000. In 2009, Taylor Made, agent, consigned To Honor and Serve to the Keeneland September yearling auction. Weber bought him for $575,000 in the name of Live Oak Plantation.
Last year, To Honor and Serve won the Cigar Mile (gr. I) and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), and was third in the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) and Florida Derby (gr. I). In 2010 he took the Nashua Stakes (gr. II) and Remsen (gr. II).
The Woodward was his eighth win in 15 starts, while a $450,000 share of the purse pushed his earnings to $1,778,840.
Mott said a determination was yet to be made regarding which Breeders' Cup race (the Dirt Mile or the Classic) To Honor and Serve will contest.
"I've got to consider what distance, but we want to run him whatever race has the biggest gain in it," Mott said. "That's something we'll have to sit down with the owners and work out."
"He'll be retired after the Breeders' Cup, I'm quite sure," said Weber.
"He's established himself as a top handicap horse, and hopefully he'll go on and finish the year out strong and go on to be a good sire," Mott said.