A Price Play in the Holy Bull

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Saturday, February 1 is going to be a big day on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Aqueduct is hosting the Withers Stakes (G3) and Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis (G3) on the agenda, but the highlight of the afternoon might be the Holy Bull Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park.

Eight horses have assembled to vie for victory in this 1 1/16-mile race, won in 2019 by the unheralded 29-1 shot Harvey Wallbanger. Folks might recall Remsen Stakes (G2) winner Maximus Mischief was favored at 9-10 to claim last year's Holy Bull, but after tracking a quick pace, he weakened in the homestretch to finish third.

Maximus Mischief's defeat was just the latest example of a high-profile favorite falling to defeat in the Holy Bull. Prior to last year's edition of the race, I wrote the following on Unlocking Winners:

Question: What do Hansen, Shanghai Bobby, Classic Empire, and Enticed all have in common?

Answer: They were all graded stakes winners making their seasonal debuts in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and despite being perceived as clear class standouts, they were all beaten at odds of 0.90-1, 1.00-1, 0.50-1, and 1.90-1. That's four clear favorites getting beaten in the span of just seven years, and a fifth favorite (Frosted) was upset at 1.50-1 in 2015.

The Holy Bull can be a strange race, often favoring the "now" horse over established stars.

Adding Maximus Mischief to the tally, the last eight editions of the Holy Bull have seen six favorites (five of them proven graded stakes winners) suffer surprising defeats.

So what does this mean for #3 Tiz the Law, runaway winner of the Champagne Stakes (G1) and an overwhelming favorite to prevail in the 2020 Holy Bull? Perhaps it means nothing. Then again, perhaps it means we should hesitate to back an odds-on favorite returning from a layoff in a competitive Kentucky Derby prep race.

On paper, Tiz the Law is absolutely the horse to beat. Racing for Sackatoga Stable and Barclay Tagg of Funny Cide fame, Tiz the Law easily won his debut at Saratoga by 4 1/4 lengths, then followed up with a decisive triumph in the one-mile Champagne. Despite stumbling at the start, he rallied smoothly from off the pace to draw away and beat graded stakes winner Green Light Go by four lengths.

This performance stamped Tiz the Law as the 3-5 favorite for the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs, where he stretched out around two turns for the first time. Unfortunately, Tiz the Law never got a chance to run his race. Buried behind horses while racing over a speed-favoring sloppy track, Tiz the Law had to wait too long to make his move, finally bulling his way between rivals in the homestretch to secure racing room. Once clear (relatively speaking), Tiz the Law briefly gained ground before switching leads and losing his momentum. He ultimately settled for third place, beaten three-quarters of a length.

Given the adversity Tiz the Law faced in the Kentucky Jockey Club, I'm tempted to forgive his defeat. Sitting behind rivals in tight quarters might be an effective strategy on turf, but it's less successful on dirt, where races are often decided before the quarter pole is reached.

But the fact remains Tiz the Law has yet to win around two turns, and the way he flattened out in the Kentucky Jockey Club leaves me wondering if he'll prove most effective as a miler. It's also fair to wonder if he'll be ready for a peak effort on Saturday. While he's been training nicely in Florida, most recently cranking out a bullet half-mile in :48 flat at Palm Meadows, the ultimate goal for this son of Constitution is the Kentucky Derby. The aim is to see him progress forwardly over the next three months, and throwing down a huge effort in his first start of the season isn't necessarily the target.

Even still, Tiz the Law's class advantage might be sufficient to win the Holy Bull. He boasts an edge in terms of Beyer and Brisnet speed figures, and there's enough speed in this field to ensure Tiz the Law can settle behind runners and come running when called upon. If you're not worried about the favorite-slaying history of the Holy Bull, Tiz the Law is the obvious choice to win.

But if you're looking for a longshot to play in the exotics-or even on top-I would recommend #2 Uncork the Bottle. At first glance, he doesn't appear particularly competitive; a former claimer, his career-best Beyer is a 73, well below the standards set by his Holy Bull rivals.

But dig a little deeper, and Uncork the Bottle's form becomes more appealing. Yes, he debuted in a $16,000 maiden claiming race, but he was tons the best winning gate-to-wire by 10 3/4 lengths. Claimed out of that race by trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr., Uncork the Bottle subsequently came running from off the pace to win a 5 1/2-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Park by 6 1/4 lengths.

Any doubt about Uncork the Bottle's ability to handle two turns was erased when the son of Colonel John rallied from mid-pack to win a one-mile grass allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs by one length. It wasn't an overly flashy effort on paper, but take note, Uncork the Bottle sprinted the final quarter in :23 4/5 even while forcing his way between rivals in the homestretch. He was more dominant than his bare margin of victory suggests.

Saffie Joseph has been winning races left and right in Florida this winter, compiling a staggering 37% win rate so far in 2020. The up-and-coming conditioner has won Gulfstream Park stakes races with Tusk, Island Commish, Sound Machine, and Chance It, and his horses have been finishing in the money 65% of the time.

My feeling is that we haven't yet seen the best Uncork the Bottle has to offer. He's undefeated, virtually unchallenged, and could fire off a career-best effort while running long on dirt for the first time. Joseph has tightened the screws by sending out Uncork the Bottle to breeze five furlongs in a quick :59 2/5 on January 26, and it's worth noting Uncork the Bottle will tote just 118 pounds on Saturday, six less than Tiz the Law.

At the very least, Uncork the Bottle is worth using in all exotic bets, including multi-race wagers. And with luck, he could be a shocking winner at 12-1 or 15-1, and at that price I'm willing to gamble he gets the job done.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Holy Bull Stakes?


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!


The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the sixth straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

Recent Posts

More Blogs