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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, January 24, 2014 at 12:00 AM

HOLY BULL RAMPS UP EARLY DERBY QUEST

11 LOOK TO CLAIM A PLACE ON TRIPLE CROWN TRAIL

There is little argument that Saturday’s Grade II Holy Bull is the first truly crucial Derby Prep Race for newly turned 3-year olds. And if this year’s edition is any indication we are once again in for a crowded and ever changing series of races over the course of the next 3 plus months.

Last year Shanghai Bobby was the even money favorite and Itsmyluckyday was a few cents from being the second favorite and those two ran in reverse order in the exacta ($31.40), validating both the analysts that saw them as definitive edge runners over the rest of the field and the public that bet them as such.

A cursory look at this year’s field presents a much different dynamic as conservatively speaking half the field could be considered in the top spot and even more as part of the vertical construction.

Let’s take a brief look at the field from the rail out.

Coup De Grace (4-1) - He leaves from the rail and both his debut (win) and in a follow up entry level allowance win at a mile he used front running speed to control the race. This is of course the next step and the son of Tapit should have little trouble adding the extra sixteenth of a mile and has worked very well since his last.

Financial Mogul (10-1) - The beauty of the depth of contention in this race is that a layoff horse like this guy (last seen finishing second in the Grade II Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct on 11/3) is that he is likely to remain a decent price. Richard Violette has not started many runners at the meet but the key to whether the son of Street Boss is ready is his regimen of a three drill sequence in ten days at Palm Meadows that saw him jog through 6 furlongs in 1:19 4/5 on 1/8 and then stretch his legs with a mile work in 1:43 last Friday. But in between he was on his toes with a 5 furlong breeze in 1:00 3/5 so if nothing else a colt that has already placed in a graded stakes is being handled quite confidently by his connections.

Best Plan Yet (20-1) - How "best" the plan is in running against this kind in his second try over the race track following a 20 lengths beaten 9th in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day remains to be seen. But he did get some interest at 6.4-1 that day and he did win twice and place once in three straight stakes races at Calder before making his 3-year old debut.

Almost Famous (8-1) - This is the other obvious speed horse in addition to the rail runner. The Patrick Byrne trained son of Unbridled’s Song should get a little bit either earlier go of it from this post and has already won at the distance when he blitzed entry level allowance runners at CD on November 9 before going to the sidelines. He did work once at the end of November and once in December before picking up the pace with two quick breezes this month. Calvin Borel makes the trip from Oaklawn to ride the colt so that should probably be considered a plus.

Our Caravan (15-1) - The son of Dasher (Awesome Again,) dives into the deep end of the pool after winning a MSW race in his most recent. This is a considerable move upward but there are some positives. The colt won that debut at today’s distance over the surface and trainer Michael Dilger won 13 of his 47 starters in 2013 is 2 for 78 at the current meet and looked well ahead of his development curve with his driving 4 wide win in that debut.

Mr. Speaker (5-1) - If nothing else, the public often likes making connections to past success and this son of Pulpit hails from the barn of last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Orb and trainer Shug McGaughey. After needing three tries to break his maiden the colt followed it up with a switch in running style from a pace-setting runner to an off the pace success in the Grade III Dania Beach Stakes on 12/21. All 4 of his career starts have been on grass but Pulpit on the male side and being out of an Unbridled mare suggest that the switch to dirt should be seamless. That being said, he’ll have to prove he can dirt but he has had a trio of machine-like 4 furlong breezes over the Payson training track so has to be considered as another viable contender.

Cairo Prince (3-1) - His second place finish in the important Grade II Remsen Stakes behind Honor Code (considered on the early short list of top Derby prospects) to wrap up his juvenile campaign. In that second place finish he exhibited the same pressing speed that got him his win in his debut and a follow up triumph in the Grade II Nashua when he held off Financial Mogul. In effect he is a nose short of being a perfect 3-for-3 and though his breeding suggests that a mile might be his fire wall trainer Kieran McLaughlin has said he is confident the colt can travel further. One thing is certain, his back-to-back bullet 5 furlong drills at Palm Meadows in :59 3/5 on 1/5 and :59 4/5 on 1/12 followed by a half mile breeze this past Sunday indicate he is as tight as can be.

Wicked Strong (8-1) - This guy is just one more example of how wickedly strong this field is. Another émigré from the Grade II Remsen Stakes and another making his 3-year old debut the son of Hard Spun was only beaten a ½ length for it all in the Remsen despite racing greenly early and erratically through the stretch. Interestingly jockey Javier Castellano jumps off Coup De Grace, where he is two-for-two to ride the first time here for trainer James Jerkens. That is a significant move in favor of a colt that has worked well for his first 2014 start.

Conquest Titan (12-1) - The Mark Casse trained son of Birdstone has obviously defined himself as a one run horse at this point in his career. His allowance win in an allowance race in his juvenile campaign finale was as impressive as one could hope for following a dismal showing in the BC Juvenile at SA 4 weeks earlier. The colt is a tricky read given the fact that his one turn races have been monster performances and his two turn races have left much to be desired so he’ll have to prove it in this two turn affair. He’s tough to toss and tough to include.

Big Bazinga (20-1) - This is one of the few in the race that are tough to support based on his dismal performance in the Grade III Delta Jackpot when he wrapped up his 2-year old campaign on November 23rd. But the son of Bluegrass Cat wouldn’t be the first to throw in a clunker at the oddly surfaced and configured Louisiana venue and if you believe that his debut MSW win and improved effort with a solid second in the Grade III Grey Cup at Woodbine are in his favor and six forward moving works at Palm Meadows since the Delta Jackpot are enough to look at him as a viable longshot then your theory could result in a big bang for your bucks.

Intense Holiday (6-1) - Trainer Todd Pletcher usually has a horde of live youngsters but he is still waiting on this one. In five juvenile starts he managed a MSW win in start number two and then failed to hit the board in three straight graded stakes, getting well beaten at 40-1 in the Grade I Champagne and then finishing mild kick fourths in both the Grade II Nashua and Grade II Remsen. You never want to completely dismiss a returning to the races Pletcher 3-year old, especially since he did show enough interest in the Nashua and Remsen but he did draw a dreadful post for his running style (the short run to the first turn will see him duck behind horses) and it is likely as a Pletcher runner he will be over bet.

There are not many certainties and a slew of possibilities in this year’s edition of the Holy Bull. One thing you can be sure of...if all go the payoffs should well reward those holding the right combo tickets.

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