FLORENCE — Trainer Larry Jones was guiding Honest Man to the track Thursday morning when he pulled the dark bay colt to a halt and let him stand for a minute before an admirer.
"He likes people looking at him," Jones said of the son of Unbridled's Song.
His sleek looks have turned heads since his early days, but the attention Honest Man has generated lately is what his connections had been hoping would come his way.
One year after saddling Hard Spun to victory over Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense in the Grade II Kentucky Cup Classic, Jones will aim to duplicate the feat when he sends the late-blooming Honest Man against five rivals in the 11⁄8-mile race at Turfway Park on Saturday.
The Kentucky Cup Classic is one of five stakes races on the card that make up Turfway's Kentucky Cup Day of Champions.
Hard Spun came into last year's race as an established star, but Honest Man has only recently figured out how to use his his ample ability at higher levels.
After losses in his two previous tries against stakes company, Honest Man delivered his breakout effort in the Grade III Philip H. Iselin Stakes at Monmouth on Aug. 16. Honest Man took advantage of quick early fractions to kick home for a 23/4-length triumph over 2007 Travers Stakes runner-up Grasshopper.
"We never were concerned with his talent. The issue was getting him to step up to the class level," Jones said of Honest Man, a $700,000 purchase as a yearling. "It was mostly just inexperience because in the other races he was just so far superior to everyone else in talent that he could do what he wanted to do when he wanted to.
"He had to learn you don't always get your way and even if you don't you still have to compete. And I think he's got that figured out now."
Because of a variety of issues, including foot problems, Honest Man didn't make his career debut until September of his 3-year-old season.
Since breaking his maiden in his third try, the colt, which is owned by Fox Hill Farm and WinStar Farm, has won five of his next seven starts. While he has enough speed to be effective at a mile, Jones believes added distance will only enhance the colt's burgeoning talent.
"This is a horse where I think a mile and a quarter will suit him better than a mile and an eighth, and a mile and an eighth suits him better than a mile," Jones said. "He's got such a good turn of foot, he's got tactical speed to lay up and he can do that for a long time."
Honest Man may not have many challengers to face Saturday, but punching a ticket to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park on Oct. 25 will not be a cakewalk.
While Honest Man will be making his first start on a synthetic surface, Grade II winner and millionaire Zanjero broke his maiden over the Keeneland Polytrack in 2006 and ran third the following year in the Blue Grass Stakes.
Zanjero snapped a three-race losing skid when he won the West Virginia Governor's Stakes by 43/4 lengths on Aug. 2.
Stream Cat, winner of the 2005 Kentucky Cup Juvenile, is the only other graded stakes winner in the field and enters off a sixth-place finish in the Grade I Arlington Million on Aug. 9.