By Ed McNamara
It’s that time of year when lightly raced thoroughbreds begin to show whether they peaked at 2 or are on the rise. Saturday’s card at Gulfstream Park should provide some hints in five 3-year-old stakes, headlined by the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull (G3), an early prep for the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby (G1) on April 2. The bridge race is Gulfstream’s 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth (G2) on March 5.
Unlike the Florida Derby, which has been very productive for the Kentucky Derby (G1) in this century, winning the Holy Bull rarely foreshadows classic success. Not since Barbaro (2006) has a horse swept the Holy Bull, Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. Tiz the Law took the Holy Bull, Florida Derby and Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown opener of COVID-ravaged 2020.
The last Florida Derby winner to score at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May was Always Dreaming, in 2017. (Two years later, Maximum Security finished first in both races but was disqualified for interference in Louisville.) None of the past four Derby winners — Medina Spirit, Authentic, Country House, Justify — prepped in Florida, but from 2006-2017 five Kentucky Derby heroes — Barbaro, Big Brown, Orb, Nyquist, Always Dreaming — came in off a victory at Gulfstream.
These trends are cyclical, and you never can tell when the wind will shift. Maybe Florida’s 3-year-olds will excel this spring. But no matter who wins the Holy Bull, think twice about betting him in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. History says that would be a bad move.
Last Saturday I had four chalky winners (top price $10.40) and three seconds on the Pegasus card. Unfortunately, two of the seconds came in the biggest races, when I underestimated Colonel Liam and Life Is Good. Let’s see if I can provide a few insights on the Holy Bull, Swale, Forward Gal, Kitten’s Joy and Sweetest Chant.
$100,000 Swale Stakes (G3), 7 furlongs, 3-year-olds
Prankster (1) can lead or stalk, and his only dud in four races was a no-chance fourth in the Grade 1 Champagne behind highly regarded Jack Christopher. Of a Revolution (3) is quick and looks like Prankster’s main rival. Dean Delivers (4) is two necks shy of being 3-for-3.
$100,000 Kitten’s Joy (G3), 1 1/16 miles, turf, 3-year-olds
Red Danger (8) is 3-for-4 on grass, with the defeat a tough-trip fourth in Keeneland’s Grade 2 Bourbon, beaten only two lengths from post 10. The winner, Tiz the Bomb, subsequently missed by only 1 1/2 lengths when second to English superstar Modern Games in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). Grand Sonata (1), a Todd Pletcher/Tyler Gaffalione collaboration, rallied to win the Dania Beach over the course. Could easily win. Coinage (2), a Grade 3 winner at Saratoga, returns after disputing a hot pace from post 12 before fading to ninth in the Juvenile Turf.
$100,000 Forward Gal (G3), 7 furlongs, 3-year-old fillies
Greatitude (2) tries to follow up on a very impressive maiden victory from just off the pace at 7 furlongs at Gulfstream. Right back in the winner’s circle for Pletcher. Radio Days (5), by hot young sire Gun Runner, can stalk and finish big. Diamond Wow (7), strong on dirt and grass, looks live for Patrick Biancone. Girl With a Dream (6), a Fair Grounds stakes-winner for Brad Cox, also fits well.
$100,000 Sweetest Chant (G3), 1 1/16 miles, turf, 3-year-old fillies
Ocean Safari (5) gets my lukewarm vote in a confusing scramble. She’s run well in all three grass starts and just missed in her last, Gulfstream’s ungraded Ginger Brew. Opalina (2) has been solid in all four turf tries at Gulfstream. Miss You Ella (7), 0-for-2 on grass for Chad Brown, is eligible to improve off her maiden breaker on synthetic.
$250,000 Holy Bull (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
Mo Donegal (2) returns after gritty win in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen on Dec. 4 at Aqueduct. Pletcher wins with 23% of his layoffs from 46 to 90 days. Turf standout Tiz the Bomb (6) led throughout a 14-length maiden romp in his only dirt route. Cajun’s Magic (5) is 2-for-5 with three seconds. He posted a few big figures against his fellow Florida-breds but facing open company off a four-month layoff is a concern.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.