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:
What do Hansen, Shanghai Bobby, Classic Empire, and Enticed all have in common?
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.
Holy Bull can be a strange race, often favoring the "now" horse over
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
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
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.