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Submitted by John Piesen on Friday, January 24, 2014 at 12:00 AM

BACK ON THE TRAIL

By John Piesen

The Derby Trail has been easy pickins’ for this writer over the years, and, sure enough, we got off to a fast start this year when we nailed the $127 exacta box in the Smarty Jones Stakes on Monday afternoon at Oaklawn Park.

Step Two on the Trail will be the $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes Saturday at Gulfstream Park, and my picks will be available on-line and on the John Piesen Hot Line at 1-888-612-2283. I’m also releasing my California Sunshine Millions selections, that’s 6 big stakes races from Santa Anita.

The Grade 2 race at 1 1/16 miles will go as race 10, and Cairo Prince will be favored under Luis Saez from post seven in a salty field of 11. All but one of the 11 will be making his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull, which will be followed down the road by the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby.

The Florida route often has produced the Derby winner. You need only look at last year when Orb ran off consecutive victories in the Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby. It will be no shock if the Kentucky Derby winner again comes out of Florida.

Not sure yet who I’ll put on top in the Holy Bull, but clearly one of the major players is Coup de Grace for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact that he is unbeaten and untested in two starts.

The owner is Rick Porter, who in the last decade, has raced such stars as Horse of the Year Havre de Grace (no relation); Hard Spun, Old Fashioned, Rockport  Harbor, Round Pond, and, of course, the ill-fated Eight Belles.

The trainer is Chad Brown, the hottest young trainer on the planet.

The jockey is John Velazquez, who will be riding for the first time since sustaining  multiple injuries in a Breeders’ Cup spill 10 weeks back. Johnny V has two other calls Saturday -- Monopolize in race four, and Aurelia’s Belle in race seven, the Forward Gal Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

And the sire is Tapit, the 2004 Wood Memorial winner, and a red-hot stallion. In addition to Coup de Grace, Tapit has at least eight other offspring on the Derby  Trail -- Constitution, Tapiture, Tonalist, Harpoon, Hartford, Giancarlo, Tap It Rich and Matterhorn.

The best of the lot may be Coup de Grace, a 300K purchase who won both his starts at 2, and worked a bullet :47 half under Johnny V last Sunday at Palm Meadows.

Eclipse winner Castellano was aboard for the colt’s two victories, but committed to Wicked Strong in the Holy Bull, and Johnny V secured the mount.

Owner Porter takes a low-key approach to the Holy Bull.

"This is a nice colt," Porter said Thursday from his Florida home, "but this is his first time going two turns, and, of course, it’s a huge jump in class. I like the post (the one-hole), and Johnny figures to put him on or near the lead.

"He doesn’t have to win. I just want to see him run well , finish well, and move forward off the race."

This is pretty standard stuff for Porter.  He doesn’t pull punches. The Holy Bull is a prep race, and Porter is treating it as such with his eye on bigger game.

"This may not even be my best 3-year-old," he said. "I have a nice Old Fashioned colt named The Truck Monkey with Larry (Jones) at the Fair Grounds."

Porter also is high on a 3-year-old filly named Cassatt, another Jones trainee, and Normandy Invasion, who is two works from his comeback race.

"I think he’ll make a nice 4-year-old for us," he said.

I couldn’t hold a conversation with Porter without mention of Eight Belles, whom we all recall tragically was put down after breaking down while pulling up following a second-place finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

"Not a day goes by I don’t think of her," he said. "I really was this close to giving up the game."

But Porter hung in there, and two years later was rewarded with Horse of the Year Havre de Grace.

And now Porter, who had back-to-back Derby seconds with Hard Spun and Eight Belles, finds himself with two Derby prospects this year.

In addition to Brown and Jones, Porter still has horses with John Servis at Parx. He certainly surrounds himself with the right people.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Coup de Grace loose on the lead from the rail in the Holy Bull, or, even better, sit a stalking second behind Almost Famous, a Pat Byrne-trained colt by Unbridled’s Song, the sire of Eight Belles.

Calvin Borel is giving up several live mounts at Oaklawn to make the trip to ride Almost Famous. The last time Calvin made that round trip from Arkansas to Florida was to ride Street Sense, who went on to become the first of his three Derby winners in four years.

Coincidentally, Almost Famous’ lone loss in three starts came in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs. Almost Famous, unlike Street Sense, is a speed horse, and figures to come out running from the four-hole.

Cairo Prince and Wicked Strong exit a two-three finish in the Remsen behind Honor Code, who is awaiting the Fountain of Youth for his season debut.

Another serious contender is Mr. Speaker, who has won his last two starts for the Phipps-McGaughey team. Lezcano has a repeat call.

Trainer Pletcher, who has Intense Holiday in the Holy Bull, will have 40 per cent of the five-horse field in the 100K Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct -- Teen Pauline from the rail and Royal Lahaina from the outside.

Teen Pauline, a 4-year-old filly by (who else?) Tapit, is the lone speed with jockey Ortiz in the ungraded nine-furlong Ladies, and exits a wire job in the 1 1/16 Affectionately on New Year’s Day.

Centring, thrice second, each time as the chalk, looks the one to beat under jockey Maragh. Trainer Albertrani certainly is overdue.

Thanks for tuning in. Have a profitable weekend with the help of my online selections, and see you back here on Super Friday.

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