John Shirreffs holds strong hand on Road to the Kentucky Derby

Profile Picture: Keeler Johnson

October 21st, 2019

In 2005 trainer John Shirreffs pulled off one of the greatest upsets in Kentucky Derby history, when he saddled Giacomo to spring an improbable 50-1 upset in the Run for the Roses.

Shirreffs hasn’t had a major impact on the Derby since then, with three starters to finish no better than seventh, but his luck could change in 2020. At Del Mar this summer, Shirreffs unveiled a trio of promising 2-year-olds with strong pedigrees, and their performances so far suggest they have the potential to be serious players on the 2019-2020 Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Let’s take a quick look at the firepower Shirreffs is stockpiling for battle on the Derby trail this winter.

Express Train

A son of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags out of a mare by Horse of the Year Mineshaft, Express Train is bred to excel running long and has already shown flashes of serious potential. At Del Mar he debuted with a runner-up effort behind future grade 1 winner Eight Rings in a 5 ½-furlong sprint, then stretched out to a mile and obliterated five rivals by 14 1/4 lengths to earn an 83 Beyer speed figure.

Most recently Express Train could only finish fourth behind Eight Rings in the 1 1/16-mile American Pharoah Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita, but he ran well in defeat. After a troubled start Express Train unleashed an eye-catching mid-race move to reach contention before he flattened out over a deep, tiring and speed-favoring track. With a better setup next time over a more favorable track, Express Train could rebound in a big way.

Honor A. P.

Honor A. P. made a great impression in his debut at Del Mar, where he unleashed a terrific rally from far off the pace to finish second in a six-furlong sprint. He changed tactics in a one-mile maiden special weight at Santa Anita on October 13, when he broke alertly and set the pace before he powered clear to score by 5 1/4 lengths. With a final two furlongs in :12.81 and :12.61 (fast fractions over the deep track at Santa Anita), Honor A. P. recorded a sharp final time of 1:37.94, which translated to a 91 Beyer speed figure.

As a son of champion Honor Code, out of the Shirreffs-trained mare Hollywood Story (a grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles), Honor A. P. is bred to thrive at classic distances. With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in his corner, Honor A. P. is among the most exciting juvenile prospects anywhere in the country.

Thunder Code

Although Thunder Code has yet to break his maiden, this son of Honor Code has shown talent in his first two starts. At Del Mar he ran into traffic during a rally from far back in a 5 1/2-furlong sprint, but still managed to finish third behind future American Pharoah Stakes (G1) runner-up American Theorem.

With this debut performance under his belt, Thunder Code tackled a 6 1/2-furlong sprint at Santa Anita on September 29 and wound up dueling for the lead through fractions of :21.52 and :44.87. This impressive change in tactics didn’t quite work out, as Thunder Code was passed in the stretch by the late-running 9-10 favorite Great Power, but Thunder Code showed resilience to dispose of the other pacesetter and finish 6 3/4 lengths clear of the third-place runner.

Shirreffs is familiar with Thunder Code’s dam, Tarlow. He trained the daughter of Stormin Fever to win the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap (G1) at 1 1/8 miles. With Thunder Code’s stamina-oriented pedigree, stretching out in distance might be all he needs to break his maiden and join his stablemates on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.