The 29th running of the Grade 2, $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes not only is a Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve race in which the top four finishers earn points that will enable them to start in the Kentucky Derby, but also kicks off the local, three-race series that moves on to the Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 3 and ends with the Florida Derby on March 31. Among the field of 11 are six horses making their first starts of 2018, including Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes winner Enticed and runner-up Tiz Mischief. Another pair of horses coming back after a couple of months away from the races is Hollywood Star and Free Drop Billy, the sixth- and ninth-place finishers, respectively, from the Grade 1 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Prior to the Juvenile, Free Drop Billy won the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity while Hollywood Star finished second in the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes, both at the distance of the Holy Bull. Audible is another horse not seen in a couple of months but who may have a say in the outcome based on his nearly 10-length win the first week in December and the fact he is one of two trained by Todd Pletcher. Pony Up is the other Pletcher trainee, one of three notable horses that raced in January. Pony Up is moving from turf to dirt after a runner-up effort in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes in January but finished second on dirt in his career debut. Another is Master Manipulator, who won at the distance of the Holy Bull at Gulfstream on Jan. 3. The last of the notable recently raced horses is Mississippi, who was beaten just three-quarters of a length last month in a highly rated allowance race at the distance of the Holy Bull. The rest of the field consists of Bandito, Tip Sheet, and Aequor, the latter of the trio the probable early pacesetter as he is stretching out from six furlongs to two turns and has been on the lead or very close to the lead in his sprint races.
Master Manipulator is on a pattern to run the best race of his career, good enough to post the upset in this year’s Holy Bull Stakes, with none of the questions of recent form shadowing some of the other entrants. After a poor effort when 11th of 12 in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes last fall (while still a maiden), Master Manipulator took a little more than two months off, returning as a much more mature 2-year-old and finishing fourth in his comeback race on Dec. 16. Eighteen days later on Jan. 3, when trying two-turns for the first time for his 3-year-old debut, Master Manipulator was a different horse as he led from start to finish on relatively fast fractions and was never threatened, earning a career-best 98 Equibase Speed Figure. Putting that effort and figure in perspective, Enticed earned a 94 figure winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall and the best figure among the rest of the Holy Bull entrants is a 102 by Pony Up on grass. With a lot of improving to do in his third start off the layoff and second two-turn start on this track, Master Manipulator should also benefit from Eclipse Award-winning jockey Jose Ortiz riding him for the second time. With Aequor very likely to go for the lead from the start while stretching out to two turns, Ortiz can use the tactical speed of Master Manipulator to drop him to the rail and save ground from the start before taking over in the stretch and holding off the closers.
Pony Up also makes his third start off a layoff, having finished second in both the Pulpit Stakes and Kitten’s Joy Stakes on turf since being away from the races from Oct. 22 to Dec. 9. He improved to a career-best (and field-high) 102 speed figure in the Kitten’s Joy, missing by a neck at the finish after being seventh with an eighth of a mile to go. Pony Up can transfer that form to dirt as he continues to improve because he did finish second (beaten by a half-length) in his only dirt start and because he is a half-brother to a couple of very nice horses who have won around two turns on dirt, one being S’maverlous, who earned nearly $700,000 in his career. With Javier Castellano moving to Audible, who may need a race before showing his best off two months away, John Velazquez takes over riding Pony Up for the first time and that is certainly fine as the team of trainer Todd Pletcher and Velazquez won nearly 30 percent of their races together in the last 12 months.
Audible is the other Pletcher trainee and is another Holy Bull entrant on an improving pattern of efforts and Equibase Speed Figures. After a big finish in his September debut, from 19 lengths back early to 4 1/4 lengths back at the finish line, Audible improved to an 89 figure when breaking his maiden in November by nearly two lengths. In his next start on Dec. 6, Audible improved a lot when winning by 9 3/4 lengths and earning a 99 speed figure. Castellano was aboard for the first time in that Dec. 6 win and rides Audible again. While I have concerns about some of the other horses in the field returning from 60 days or longer on the bench, I don’t have the same concerns with Audible because according to Stats Race Lens, Pletcher’s runners have won nearly one-quarter of the time over the past two years from this type of layoff.
One more horse to mention as a possible contender, at least insofar as exotic wagers like the exacta are concerned, is Mississippi, who improved from a 98 speed-figure effort in November when winning in his second career start to a 100 figure on Jan. 8 when second and beaten less than a length at Gulfstream Park at the distance of the Holy Bull. With the extreme outside post and having early speed, Mississippi could be forced to go quite wide or expend a lot of energy in the early stages as he and jockey Julien Leparoux try to gain a forward position. That ground loss could be a factor late.
Although Enticed (94 best Equibase Speed Figure), Tiz Mischief (94), and Free Drop Billy (94) all proved themselves stakes quality as 2-year-olds last year, I must take a wait-and-see approach in their first starts of 2018 as they attempt to run two turns without a prep race first and against horses who appear to be capable of running as fast as they are, but who have raced in the past month.
The rest of the field (with best representative Equibase Speed Figures: Aequor (95 in a sprint), Bandito (81), Hollywood Star (90) and Tip Sheet (90).
Top Three Win Contenders: