By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
After a slightly rocky
start, my stated goal of picking 50% winners on Unlocking Winners in 2021 is
back on track.
I must admit I breathed a
sigh of relief after Colonel Liam and Knicks Go delivered as expected in the
Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) and Pegasus World Cup (G1). This well-timed double
pushed my win percentage back to 50%, courtesy of a 6-3-1-2 record with a $2.33
My goal now is to pick at
least one winner in the two Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races taking place
this Saturday, which would maintain my 50% strike rate through the first month
of the year. Of course, I won't cry if both my selections visit the winner's
circle, pushing my win percentage to 62.5% while buying me a little room for
error heading into February....
Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream Park
With a few exceptions, the
Holy Bull is a race that favors a very specific group of horses; specifically, up-and-comers
with experience running a mile or farther. Proven juvenile graded stakes performers
tend to falter in the Holy Bull, with a bevy of them (Hansen, Shanghai Bobby,
Classic Empire, Enticed, Frosted, and Maximus Mischief) suffering defeats at
2-1 or less in the last decade.
Furthermore, since the Holy
Bull was lengthened to 1 1/16 miles in 2013 (becoming a two-turn race in the
process), seven of the eight winners had previously run over a mile or farther.
The lone exception was Irish War Cry, who entered the 2017 Holy Bull undefeated
in two starts sprinting, including a victory in the 7-furlong Marylander
All this is a roundabout way
of saying there are two horses worth opposing (at least to some degree) in the
Holy Bull. The first is #8 Sittin On Go (5-1),
stretch-running winner of the Iroquois (G3) at Churchill Downs last summer.
While he's certainly the most accomplished horse in the Holy Bull, Sittin On Go
struggled during the second half of his juvenile campaign, failing to finish
better than sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and Kentucky Jockey Club
Sittin On Go has trained
forwardly for the Holy Bull, but he's returning from a layoff and seems
unlikely to get a fair setup. While there's speed in the Holy Bull field, the
race will end at the sixteenth pole, which doesn't leave much time for Sittin
On Go to get his late rally on track.
The latter concern won't be
an issue for #6 Prime Factor (3-1),
who flashed plenty of pace when dominating his debut at Gulfstream by 8 3/4
lengths. Conditioned by two-time Holy Bull-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, Prime
Factor has run fast on the speed figure scales and breezed a bullet 5 furlongs
in an excellent :59 4/5 at Palm Beach Downs last Saturday, indicating the $900,000
yearling has a lot of talent and potential.
But Prime Factor has only
run once, and he's stepping up from 6 furlongs to a mile, a challenging
transition no matter how you slice it. The distance itself shouldn't be an
issue, considering Prime Factor is a son of Quality Road out of a Bernardini
mare. But his inexperience could prove problematic; according to reporting from
Byron King on Bloodhorse.com, Pletcher considered running Prime Factor in an
allowance race rather than the Holy Bull, but no suitable race turned up.
I won't be surprised if
Prime Factor's raw talent carries him to the Holy Bull winner's circle, but keeping
historical trends in mind, I have to oppose him for the top spot with #7 Greatest Honour (5-2), who has shown
steady improvement under the care of Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey.
A stoutly bred son of Tapit
out of a Street Cry mare, Greatest Honour initially showed promise sprinting on
the New York circuit last year. The bay colt rallied to finish third in a pair
of competitive 7-furlong maiden races at Saratoga and Belmont Park, coming home
close behind recent Smarty Jones Stakes winner Caddo River on both occasions.
But Greatest Honour has
shown significant improvement since stretching out around two turns. In a 1
1/8-mile maiden race at Aqueduct, Greatest Honour rallied to finish second by a
head against future Remsen (G2) third-place finisher Known Agenda. Notably,
Greatest Honour pulled 21 lengths clear of third-place finisher Overtook, who
returned to win his next start (against similar company) with ease.
Greatest Honour finally
graduated in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Gulfstream last month, which was an
impressive performance on every level. Greatest Honour was significantly impacted
on the first turn when a rival bore out and fell, forcing him to race farther
off the pace than intended. Nevertheless, Greatest Honour rallied resolutely around
the far turn and down the stretch, charging on the far outside to win by 1 1/2
lengths in 1:43.86.
This effort produce solid
speed figures, and Greatest Honour's fast finish (flying home in :30.30)
produced a massive 110 Brisnet Late Pace rating, his second straight
triple-digit number and easily the highest figure in the Holy Bull field. The
performance was recently flattered when distant third-place finisher Another
Duke returned to win a similar race at Gulfstream Park.
The abbreviated stretch run
of the Holy Bull could be a concern for Greatest Honour, but since he handled
this configuration just fine in his maiden victory, I'm hopeful it won't be an
issue. If the pace is contested, Greatest Honour should be able to gain ground
around the final turn and edge Prime Factor in the battle to the finish line.
Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita
A deep field has lined up to
contest this 1 1/16-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race. Case in point?
Six of the eight entrants have already earned Kentucky Derby qualification
points, including Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) winner #8 Spielberg and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) runner-up #4 Hot Rod Charlie.
But I'll be surprised if #1 Medina Spirit is defeated. Hailing
from the barn of eight-time Robert B. Lewis-winning trainer Bob Baffert, Medina
Spirit enters off an eye-catching effort in the Sham (G3) at Santa Anita.
Facing his speedy stablemate Life Is Good (the early favorite for the Kentucky
Derby), Medina Spirit was placed in a difficult position early on, tracking the
pace from second place while his heralded companion opened up a daylight lead.
It's hard to stay in touch
with a fast front-runner like Life Is Good and still leave something in the tank
for the homestretch drive, so when Life Is Good turned for home in command of a
four-length lead, I expected Medina Spirit to weaken from his pace-chasing
exertions and lose ground down the lane. Instead, Medina Spirit showed
remarkable resilience and focus, cutting Life Is Good's lead down to just
three-quarters of a length at the finish line.
This effort produced strong
Beyer and Brisnet speed figures, stamping Medina Spirit as the horse to beat in
the Robert B. Lewis. The son of Protonico wasn't originally expected to contest
this race, but after working strongly in company with Spielberg on Jan. 22,
Baffert evidently elected to enter Medina Spirit after all. I view this as a sign
that Medina Spirit is ready for another big effort, so I won't get creative—I'll
play Medina Spirit on top of all my tickets while emphasizing Hot Rod Charlie
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Holy Bull and Robert B. Lewis?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.