On Saturday, a field of nine sophomores is expected to race 1 1/16 miles in the 32nd running of the Holy Bull Stakes (GII), a key prep race for the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GI), Florida Derby (GI) and, ultimately, the Kentucky Derby (GI) in three months. The $350,000 Gulfstream Park feature is named for one of the best sophomores to have ever raced and consistently draws the best 3-year-old colts and geldings wintering in South Florida.
Saturday will be a typical picture-perfect winter day in Hallandale with sunny skies and an afternoon high reaching into the upper 70s. The main track will be fast and the turf course firm for the entire 12-race program offering five stakes, four of which are graded.
Holy Bull himself was a bit of an unlikely story. The modestly bred son of Great Above and the Al Hattab mare Sharon Brown was sent to Pelican Stable owner Rachel Carpenter’s longtime trainer Jimmy Croll as 2-year-old and showed promise from the beginning. On the day he broke his maiden, Carpenter passed away. But, in her will, she left her horses — including the handsome gray Holy Bull — to Croll, who was also a longtime friend.
Holy Bull never won the Derby or a Breeders’ Cup race, but he was 1994’s Horse of the Year after a 3-year-old campaign that saw him earn victories in the Hutcheson Stakes (GII), Florida Derby (GI), Blue Grass Stakes (GII), Met Mile (GI), Dwyer Stakes (GII), Haskell Invitational Handicap (GI), Travers Stakes (GI) and Woodward (GI).
Holy Bull was retired in early 1995 after suffering a career ending injury facing off against the great Cigar and stood at stud at Jonabell/Darley for 16 years before being pensioned in 2012. Among his more notable offspring are Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, champion Macho Uno and multiple stakes winners Confessional, Flashy Bull, Woke Up Dreamin and more. He’s still a fan favorite and receives visitors regularly at his longtime Kentucky home.
Perhaps the most notable entry slip dropped into the entry box on Wednesday for the race named for HolyBull was for John Oxley’s recently crowned Champion Juvenile and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) winner Classic Empire, who will be making his 2017 debut. The bay son of Pioneerof the Nile got a brief freshening after the Breeders’ Cup but has been back working regularly at his base of Palm Meadows since the beginning of the year. But for one bad break, he’d be undefeated and we know he can get the distance, we know he’s loaded with class, we know he has some amazing connections in trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux and we know he’ll be tough to beat. His post position is perfectly matched with his tactical ability, which will only help in this test loaded with some speed. If he’s fit — and he should be — he’ll be tough at a very short price.
Gunnevera will lead the field to post in his first start since winning the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (GIII) in November. The son of Dialed In is the first “big horse” for owners Peacock Racing Stable and while trainer Antonio Sano has had some good horses in the past, Gunnevera is his leading earner from more than 3,700 starters and his first legitimate Derby hopeful. While the inside post position isn’t ideal, he does have the benefit of being a closer in this contest, which is expected to have quick splits, and jockey Javier Castellano, fresh of his third consecutive Eclipse Award, is as good a big-money rider as any. He broke his maiden at Gulfstream, shouldn’t have trouble with distance and his talent shows he’s a good fit at this level headed down the Kentucky Derby trail.
Top owners Stonestreet Stable and Susan Magnier’s Fact Finding will be making his first graded stakes attempt after winning his only three races in maiden, allowance and non-graded company in impressive fashion. Now trainer Todd Pletcher thinks the $523,000 son of The Factor is ready for the big leagues. Sure, he’s facing the best in the division in his first black-type try, but he’s improved with every start and stretched out successfully with each. He’s also shown some tactical ability and while his pedigree may be a slight question (his sire was a very talented longer distance sprinter who himself was bred to route) he appears to be one who will further improve with every start. Pletcher’s go-to jockey John Velazquez is back aboard again and the pair will break from post position six.
Irish War Cry is another making his graded stakes debut off an impressive listed stakes win. Isabelle De Tomaso’s New Jersey homebred son of Curlin has been brought along carefully by trainer Graham Motion and finds a good spot to dip his hoof into the Derby prep pool. He’s bred to love the added distance and hasn’t missed a beat either working or training in months. His numbers are big considering he’s only been in against maidens and smaller stakes horses and having Joel Rosario aboard will only help. He may also offer some value against the top choices.
Talk Logistics is a maiden winner and twice stakes placed making his graded debut. He’s a locally based runner for trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. and though hasn’t won in two starts over this surface, has placed twice. He may be just a notch below the top choices, however.
Shamsaan and Cavil will both represent trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who saddled Mohaymen to win this race a year ago, for Shadwell and Godolphin Racing, respectively. Both are well-bred and both are maiden winners who are taking big leaps in class. Maybe taking a watch-and-see approach is the best idea for this pair.
Nicely bred Fire for Effect broke his maiden over a sloppy Gulfstream Park main track three weeks ago and is back in his stakes debut. He is trained by Dale Romans and will be ridden by Corey Lanerie from the far outside post position, but he looks like he has some making up to do to be competitive against this bunch.
Perro Rojo hasn’t run a decent race in four tries since breaking his maiden in September so it’s hard to imagine after losing all of those by double digit lengths that he’ll have any positive say in here, despite his notable connections.
The Holy Bull is the 12th and final race on the card and is expected to leave the gate at 5:35 p.m. ET.