Derby Prep Picks to Close Out January

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 ROI.

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....

Let's begin!

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 Stakes.

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 (G2).

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, 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 underneath.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Holy Bull and Robert B. Lewis?


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 seventh 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, 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

Recent Posts

More Blogs