We start off this year's preview of prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby with a very exciting and abnormally-stacked field for the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. We often see fields like this for the final prep races before the Derby, but for early February this is a treat. We can only hope that this race is both as good as the last race we previewed at Gulfstream and as profitable. If you missed the Pegasus World Cup Preview from last weekend , we correctly picked Arrogate to win the race, identified both second-place finisher Shaman Ghost and third-place runner Neolithic, and didn't have much nice to say about reigning Horse of the Year and ninth-place finisher California Chrome. Here's hoping things go just as well as we set out to make out Holy Bull Stakes expert picks, complete with odds and betting predictions.
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The Holy Bull is the first of three steps in the top-tier path to the Derby out of Florida. It will be followed by the Fountain of Youth and then the Florida Derby. Most notably, Barbaro won this race in 2006 en route to his great Derby win and his tragic Preakness setback. For the last five years the race has been run at a mile and 1/16, which makes it a decent early-season test for these horses. If they struggle at this distance then the Derby test becomes a major challenge. Here's a look at the four horses that make this such a compelling field:
(Horse, jockey, morning line odds)
Classic Empire, Julien Leparoux, 3/5: This is the highlight of this strong field. Classic Empire is the reigning two year old champion after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and three other impressive outings as well. The lone blemish on his record came when he reared early in a race and lost his rider. He is, at this point very early in the road to the Derby, by far the runaway class of the field. Not This Time seemed like the only horse that was his equal, but an unfortunate injury ended his career. Now, we can never be certain that a freakish two year old will mature into a top three year old, and since this is his three year old debut we require a bit of a leap of faith in backing him. He's a son of Pioneerof The Nile, though, and so was American Pharoah. That's a big positive. He's out of the Mark Casse barn, and no one is training any better than Casse is at this moment. And he has looked just as classy and impressive in recent training sessions as we would like him to. This is unquestionably the horse to beat in this field, and it's not close. By the end of this race either the current Derby favorite will have a really massive lead in the race, or the futures field will have been blown wide open. I'll bet on the former - even if there isn't too much money in doing so.
Gunnevera, Javier Castellano, 9/2: This colt is the son of Dialed In, the winner of this race in 2011. I liked that horse a lot - too much - that year. This colt won the Saratoga Special last year and then capped his year with a very impressive rally from last to first to win the Delta Jackpot. He also broke his maiden at Gulfstream, so we know he likes the track. The talent is significant here, but there are two things I don't like about his chances. First, his trainer is Antonio Sano. He's a solid trainer in Florida, but he has only very rarely played on the national level and is in tough against this elite training field. Second, he's a deep closer, and I'm not convinced he is going to get the trip he needs in this one. Good horse in a tough spot, but definitely a contender to hit the board.
Fact Finding, John Velazquez, 6/1: This is Todd Pletcher's entrant in this race. That's worth noting - he's a lousy bet in the actual Derby, but he usually performs very well on the path to that race. This is an unbeaten runner who has improved each time out. There are concerns about him loving two turns, and he'll need to be the best he has been. He's also going to be bet down lower than he should be - he could easily be the second betting choice, but I don't like him any better than fourth. Still, you can't fault what he has done so far, so he deserves some respect.
Irish War Cry, Joel Rosario, 15/1: Graham Motion, who won the Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom, brings this runner here. He's a son of Curlin, which earns him a lot of respect in my books. He's taking a big step up in class here, but his numbers have been strong, and he has won from off the pace and on the lead, so he's versatile. At the right price, which we are all but certain to get because this morning line is very high, he's a very attractive part of the trifecta or exacta considerations.
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