Once upon a time, the Jockey Club Gold Cup was America's most important autumn race, often crowning the Horse of the Year. Since the coming of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, it's been reduced to a prestigious, lucrative prep for the Classic.

Saturday, the marquee thoroughbred on Belmont Park's six-stakes card was Honor Code, who wasn't even entered in the $1-million Gold Cup. Instead, his prep for the 1¼-mile Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland was the Grade II Kelso, a one-turn mile worth $400,000. Not only did Honor Code lose, the 3-5 favorite barely got up for third with a wide rally in the slop that bailed out those with five-figure show bets on him.

Honor Code might not have finished in the money in the 97th Gold Cup, in which Tonalist defended his title with a 4¾-length runaway for jockey John Velazquez, with Wicked Strong second and Effinex third. Last year's Belmont Stakes champion had lost three straight, including a second behind Honor Code in the Met Mile. Tonalist was only 1-for-4 this year, but the ultimate horse for course improved to 5-for-7 (two seconds) at Belmont. He paid $4 after running 1¼ miles in 2:02.16 to earn $600,000 for Robert Evans, raising his total to $3,097,000.

"People forgot about him, but I never did,'' trainer Christophe Clement said. "It's a great achievement to win this race two years in a row.''

The Classic will draw the 'A' team -- American Pharoah, Beholder, Tonalist, Keen Ice and perhaps Liam's Map, so Honor Code will need a bounce-back.

For Tonalist, the challenge at Keeneland will be to excel against the very best away from Belmont. He's 1-for-7 elsewhere.

"He's a top-class horse,'' Clement said. "We're back on top. Every start this year, I wouldn't have traded my position with anyone, even when we got beat.''

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Honor Code's trainer, Shug McGaughey, watched his colt struggle in the muck behind front-running Appealing Tale, who paid $15.60. The California shipper beat Red Vine by 1¾ lengths, with Honor Code two lengths farther back.

McGaughey was frustrated but philosophical, with plans for the Classic still on. "We were in it to win it, but it wasn't his day,'' he said. "It's not a problem. He'll be fine.''

Jockey Javier Castellano agreed. "He still finished strong, so I wasn't disappointed at all,'' he said. "I'm looking forward to the mile and a quarter.''

So is everybody else in racing.

Notes & quotes: Stephanie's Kitten ($6.90) scored by 1½ lengths in the Flower Bowl . . . Nickname ($12.80) took the Frizette . . . Greenpointcrusader ($15) won the Champagne by 4½ lengths . . . Takeover Target ($12) took the Hill Prince.