One year after earning his first Kentucky Derby victory with Orb, Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey has a few bright young prospects who could bring him back to the Run for the Roses -- Remsen winner Honor Code; Dania Beach hero Mr Speaker, who will try dirt in Saturday's Holy Bull; and now Top Billing, who enhanced his status by crushing the 4TH race on the Holy Bull undercard at Gulfstream Park.
A homebred campaigned by William S. Farish and E.J. Hudson Jr., Top Billing was a troubled second to the well-regarded Commissioner in a similar entry-level allowance here on January 3. But the even-money favorite didn't have a straw in the path this time, and uncorking a bold, sustained move from last, he simply blew past Surfing U S A to win as much the best by 2 3/4 lengths.
"That was pretty impressive," McGaughey said. "I was watching on the TV and all I could see was his number; the 2 was back there where I didn't want him to be. He's learning. I thought this was a powerful race today. He ate the dirt today even though Joel (Rosario) took him out away from it. He told me that wasn't going to be a problem in the future. I just thought he ran an awful good race today."
Top Billing boasts a terrific pedigree, as a son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and the multiple Grade 3-winning A.P. Indy mare Parade Queen. That makes him a half-brother to Grade 3 heroine Untouched Talent, who is herself the dam of Bodemeister, the 2012 Arkansas Derby romper and runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
In his only start as a juvenile, Top Billing rallied from almost 15 lengths back in the Laurel slop and won impressively by 5 1/4 lengths on December 6. He stretched out from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles when trying winners next time at Gulfstream. His attempt to go last-to-first was compromised by traffic in the stretch, and he fell a neck short of overtaking Commissioner.
With Joel Rosario back aboard, Top Billing was content to lope along at the rear in Saturday's 1 1/16-mile test. Up front, 8-5 second choice Surfing U S A, Commissioner's stablemate from the Todd Pletcher barn, dictated fractions of :23 4/5, :47 1/5 and 1:11. He had no difficulty in shrugging off his early pursuers, Rockford and Hesinfront.
But at the same time, Top Billing was circling the field on the far turn, and so great was his momentum that he quickly submerged Surfing U S A swinging into the stretch. He reached the mile mark in 1:36, and still under a hand ride, he drew 2 3/4 lengths clear in a final time of 1:42 3/5.
"He was the best horse in the race," Rosario said. "He always takes himself back a little bit, but when he's ready to go, he goes. I was very happy with the move he made. He just has such a quick turn of foot and when he's ready, he gives it to you. He's an honest horse."
Surfing U S A was best of the rest by 2 1/2 lengths. We're All Set took third, followed by Hesinfront; Rockford; Monopolize, Hall of Famer John Velazquez's first ride back from injury; and the tailed-off Grand Arrival.
Top Billing, who paid his fans $4, has now earned $56,835 from a record of 3-2-1-0.
McGaughey is looking ahead to the Derby trail, and pondering how to keep his contenders apart.
"I'd like to keep them separated," the Hall of Famer said. "You know there's not going to be another allowance race for him, so somewhere along the line we're going to have to put our heads together, see how he comes out of this.
"The one thing we're not going to do is overcook him early -- that's not going to happen. We'll just have to wait and see how he comes out of this.
"I was a little nervous about running him back in three weeks. But he trained well and came out of it well, but it does show he can do it.
"This horse has an unbelievably good mind. When he schooled the other day, he was perfect, and he was perfect again today. If we do have to send him somewhere, that won't be a problem."