Saturday was a big day on the Derby Trail, with three different points races, the Holy Bull at Gulfstream, the Withers at Aqueduct, and the Lewis at Santa Anita. We saw some very good performances, some pretty good performances, and some disappointing performances mixed in.
The good news for those that struggled? It’s only February. Let’s take a look. We’ll start with the Holy Bull.
Holy Bull Stakes – Gulfstream Park, won by Irish War Cry
Fractions – 24.14, 47.92, 1:11.87, 1:36.37, 1:42.52 (1 1/16 miles)
Winning Beyer – 97
Winning Margin – 3 3/4 lengths
Pace & Flow – Irish War Cry went to the front, set a moderate pace, and was able to wire the field. Gunnavera made a strong late run but didn’t threaten the winner, who benefited from being on the very slow pace.
On The Winner – We thought this might be a touch too much for Irish War Cry off a slow-paced stakes win in Maryland, but he was up to the challenge. The Graham Motion-trianed New Jersey-bred did benefit from the scratch of Fact Finding (who will run on Saturday in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa), enabling him to get to the front easily. Still, Irish War Cry ran very well, if aided by the moderate pace. He’s certainly promising.
The Others – The story of the race was the relative no-show from Classic Empire, who was washy in the post parade, balked at entering the starting gate, sat a good trip stalking off the pace, but had nothing. The 2-year old champion deserves another chance, but all of his previous races were very good (save the Hopeful where he has the obvious excuse of tossing his rider at the start). His last two races at 2, especially the Breeders Cup, were too good to ignore, but this race was certainly disappointing. That said, per Bloodhorse, Mark Casse did say today (Thursday) that Classic Empire emerged from the race with a foot bruise:
Casse said that while Classic Empire appeared in good order Sunday after the race, the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner was noticeably off Monday morning and “couldn’t walk at all” by that afternoon. X-rays on the foot came back clean and by Tuesday morning, the abscess began to drain before busting wide open Wednesday.
He added that he expects his horse back on the track later this week and he could return in the March 4th Fountain of Youth (Casse had said after the race that Classic Empire might make his next start away from Gulfstream if he felt he didn’t handle the track, but the foot bruise could account for his performance).
Gunnavera finished second and ran very well. He was saving ground around the far turn when he had to steady in tight, swung out wide, and was moving well late. Steadying definitely cost him at least a length, had he gotten through, maybe he could have won – he certainly should have been closer. Either way, it was a promising effort for a horse whose previous best race came on the Delta Downs 6-furlong bullring. We were dubious of his form, but he ran fine here.
Talk Logistics was disappointing. He was our key horse underneath Classic Empire and in a great spot just off the moderate pace set by Irish War Cry, but he was all in on the turn and had nothing, dropping back.
Cavil was a bit wide early on but didn’t have any response.
What’s Next (Gulfstream) – The Florida Derby trail continues on March 4th with the Fountain of Youth. Irish War Cry is expected to return in that race, as is Gunnavera. Three Rules, who won five races last year before an off-the-board finish in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, finished second in the Swale going 7 furlongs on Saturday and is also expected. We could see Classic Empire come back too, and Todd Pletcher’s Battalion Runner, who won an allowance race on Friday, would also seem to fit there.
Withers Stakes – Aqueduct, won by El Areeb.
Fractions – 24.29, 49.31, 1:14.06, 1:38.30, 1:44.47
Winning Beyer – 92
Winning Margin – 4 1/4 lengths
Pace & Flow – True Timber (#1) stumbled at the start when the pace didn’t develop, he was sent through by Kendrick Cartouche to set the pace on the inside. The pace wasn’t that fast, but considering the start he ran well to be second. El Areeb stalked in third on the outside, moved up and crushed the field.
On The Winner – When El Areeb won the Jerome on a muddy track, we wrote that while we were impressed, we wanted to see him do it again on a fast track. Well, he did. This was a much better performance to us than that one. He sat back off a moderate pace, rating kindly, lost ground on both turns, and still was drawing away in the lane. He is by Exchange Rate, which doesn’t scream 10 furlongs, but he’s done nothing wrong so far.
The Others – True Timber did stumble at the start and rushed up, but ultimately set a moderate pace on his own and was no match for the winner.
J Boys Echo lost ground on both turns and was moving pretty well late. It wasn’t a bad effort, but he probably should have caught True Timber for second.
Bonus Points was in between horses around the track, had to wait briefly at the top of the lane, but didn’t really have a significant rally down to the wire. He didn’t threaten. Apartfromthecrowd ran fifth with a good ground-saving trip and did basically no running. He was aided significantly by a gold rail in his previous start.
What’s Next (New York) – The Gotham Stakes will be run on March 4th and could include Practical Joke, third in the Breeders Cup Juvenile after winning the Grade 1 Hopeful and Grade 1 Champagne, and Mo Town, Remsen winner, are possible for that race. El Areeb could skip the Gotham and point for the Wood Memorial in April.
Robert B. Lewis – Santa Anita, won by Royal Mo.
Fractions – 23.86, 47.37, 1:11.50, 1:36.84, 1:43.48 (1 1/16 miles)
Winning Beyer – 93
Winning Margin – 3 1/2 lengths
Pace & Flow – Royal Mo went to the lead and set a pretty moderate pace while pressed lightly by Irap, a maiden, who faded. Royal Mo was confronted on the far turn, but put that one away and won easily.
On The Winner – Royal Mo looks like he could be a pretty nice horse, but we’ll have to see more after he beat a suspect field with an easy trip. He ran a good speed figure (albeit with circumstances in his favor) and with trainer John Sherrifs conditioning Gormley for these connections, you might see him ship out of town for a different prep during the next round in March.
The Others – Irap made a move on the far turn but was no match and probably also benefited from the leisurely pace. Sheer Flattery, who was the slight favorite (7-5 vs 3-2 of Royal Mo) was last early off the moderate pace, but we were hoping he’d be able to at least pass Irap for second, even if he was always going to be up against it considering Royal Mo’s pace scenario. Ultimately, this was a weak field and we’ll have to see these horses perform well against much better competition before we get too excited.
What’s Next (Santa Anita) – The Santa Anita Derby trail continues on March 11th with the San Felipe Stakes, which should get a much tougher field after Gormley and American Anthem, 1-2 in the Sham Stakes, skipped over this round of preps.