Holy Bull: An Enduring Legacy of Brilliance
BloodHorse news editor Byron King presents his latest Derby Dozen Presented by Spendthrift, with a look at his leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 6.
Last week, Angel of Empire jumped on the Derby trail with an upset win in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford at Fair Grounds. Saturday, the $1 million Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park is on tap, featuring a field of 11 prospects vying for 100 total Derby points.
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Not since Nyquist in 2016 has a 2-year-old champion from the previous year won the Kentucky Derby, something this three-time Grade 1 winner aims to accomplish. Two of the better Derby efforts since then from Eclipse Award winners came from Good Magic (second, 2018) and Essential Quality (wide fourth, 2020). Forte's Hall of Fame trainer, Todd Pletcher, expressed satisfaction at the colt's latest drill for the March 4 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, a five-furlong move in 1:01.41 Feb. 18 at Palm Beach Downs – his sharpest move of the winter on the tiring training surface. "I'm very pleased with his fitness level and the way he's been training," Pletcher said.
With a two-year participation ban of trainer Bob Baffert continuing until early July at Churchill Downs Inc. tracks, fellow Derby Dozen runner Reincarnate was entered in the Feb. 25 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park with Tim Yakteen as trainer. At least some other Baffert horses figure to follow suit in upcoming races to accumulate needed qualifying points for the May 6 classic at Churchill Downs. Arabian Knight appears to have vast talent, having recorded a blowout victory in the slop in the Southwest Stakes after a runaway debut win at Keeneland last fall.
Before the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford was staged at Fair Grounds Feb. 18, trainer Brad Cox got back to business in New Orleans with perhaps his best prospect for this year's Derby. In his first workout since his come-from-behind victory in the Jan. 21 Lecomte Stakes, Instant Coffee breezed a half-mile in :49.80. Later in the day, Two Phil's validated the Lecomte form with a close third behind Angel of Empire (also trained by Cox) and Sun Thunder in the Risen Star.
Last Saturday at Santa Anita Park, the San Vicente Stakes runner-up worked five furlongs in company with Fort Bragg in :58.80, his second consecutive fast work for Baffert, though he was outworked by his Grade 3-placed stablemate by a half-length. Being by Curlin, sire of such stayers as Vino Rosso, Malathaat, Keen Ice, Clairiere, Nest, and many others, the chances are likely he should appreciate a route. This colt is also a steady-paced grinder that seems well suited to added distance based on his style.
Instant Coffee was not the only Derby prospect to breeze for Cox this past Saturday at Fair Grounds. This Justify colt, a half-brother to 2019 older dirt female champion Midnight Bisou, breezed four furlongs in a near-bullet :59.80 with stablemate Giant Mischief. Both colts are stakes placed – Verifying last year ran second in the Champagne Stakes – and they are entered in the Rebel Feb. 25 at Oaklawn. That will be his second start of the year after a fast allowance optional claiming win there Jan. 14.
Breezing Feb. 19 at Santa Anita Park in tandem with fellow Derby Dozen runner Reincarnate, he seemed a smidge better in the drill, finishing just in front and not requiring as much encouragement on the gallop out. Baffert opted to go a little easier on them this week after a six-furlong move in 1:11.60 a week prior. Expecting to see him in action soon since after finishing third as the favorite Jan. 8 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. Reincarnate runs this Saturday in the Rebel with Yakteen his trainer of record.
Like Forte, he is getting close to a return from the Nov. 4 FanDuel Breeders' Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance – a race Forte won with this colt finishing fourth after a slow start. Though his most recent five-furlong drill of 1:02.20 may not leap out, take note that it came at Payson Park, where works tend to be a couple seconds slower than at a track like Gulfstream Park. The Champagne Stakes winner's breeze was co-fastest of six at the distance, sharing the bullet with fellow Chad Brown trainee and older horse Highest Honors, a last-out second in the 2022 Red Smith Stakes.
8. Tapit Trice
An overpowering allowance optional claiming win Feb. 4 at Gulfstream seemingly took out none of the spark of this talented runner, who resumed breezing Saturday with a half-mile in :50.93 at Palm Beach Downs. Look for trainer Todd Pletcher to get more serious with his next drill as he readies him for his first start in stakes company, with options in Florida next month seeming attractive.
He travels from California to Arkansas for the $1 million Rebel Stakes Feb. 25, the richest prep to date in 2023 on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, which, not surprisingly, has lured a top field. Verifying, Red Route One, Gun Pilot, and Giant Mischief are other leading Rebel contenders. Starting for Tim Yakteen after having been prepped by Baffert leading up to the race, he is eligible to secure Derby points. A winner of two in a row after three initial runner-up finishes, he was determined in repelling next-out graded stakes winner Newgate when taking the Sham.
10. Cave Rock
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up now has two half-mile breezes under his belt, a keen :47.80 initial move Feb. 13, followed by an easier :49.40 breeze Feb. 20, both at Santa Anita for Baffert. He is further behind others in his preparation this winter, but could conceivably make the Derby if he earns qualifying points with another trainer when back in racing action in mid-to-late March or April. Alternatively, his connections could opt to pass the Derby and point for the May 20 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. His talent is unmistakable, having won three of four starts last year, including a couple of Grade 1s.
11. Angel of Empire
The Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles should be to his liking, with four of his five starts coming at a mile or longer, topped by a victory in the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star Stakes last Saturday. Enthusiasm is tempered by the slowest time in the Risen Star (1:51.47) since Fair Grounds extended the race to the 1 1/8-mile distance in 2020 (two divisions that year.) By way of comparison, Epicenter zipped the distance in 1:49.03 last year.
12. Rocket Can
Like Angel of Empire, he did not run quickly last out in winning in graded company. He captured the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes in 1:44.97, the slowest time at the 1 1/16-mile distance in the race since Booklet won the Holy Bull in 2002 in 1:46.16. (The Holy Bull was run at different distances from 2005-12.) He earned just an 89 Equibase Speed Figure in the Holy Bull, though his performance was higher on scale in performance figures that take into account ground loss, owing to a wide trip.