Fierce Three-Year-Olds Tackle Derby Qualifiers

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

The first Saturday in February is a big one on the 2023-24 Road to the Kentucky Derby. Four qualifiers are taking place across the country, and a couple of possible superstar three-year-olds are making their seasonal debuts.

We'll follow the stars and focus our attention on the $250,000 Holy Bull S. (G3) at Gulfstream Park and the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) at Santa Anita:

Holy Bull S. (G3)

In the past, I've played against short-priced horses kicking off their sophomore season in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull. Since 2012, accomplished juveniles like Hansen, Shanghai Bobby, Classic Empire, Enticed, Frosted, Maximus Mischief, and Mo Donegal have all fallen to defeat at odds of 2-1 or less. Hansen, Shanghai Bobby, and Classic Empire were reigning champion two-year-olds, and even they couldn't deliver victory.

But despite this history of Holy Bull surprises, I can't oppose heavy favorite #7 Fierceness in the 2024 Holy Bull. True, he was beaten as an odds-on favorite in the Champagne S. (G1) at Aqueduct last fall, finishing seventh over a sloppy track. But Fierceness sandwiched that defeat between two stellar victories that stamp him as hands-down the horse to beat at Gulfstream.

Fierceness was spectacular in his debut sprinting six furlongs at Saratoga, leading all the way over a muddy track to defeat four future winners (including a trio of next-out winners) by 11 1/4 lengths. And when given a chance to rebound from his Champagne disappointment in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita, Fierceness pressed the pace before drawing off to beat a deep field by 6 1/4 lengths. The runner-up, Muth, had previously won the American Pharoah S. (G1) and came back to nab the San Vicente S. (G2).

When Fierceness broke his maiden, he earned a 101 Brisnet Speed rating. When he romped in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he improved to a 112. None of his Holy Bull rivals have earned a number higher than 98, and Fierceness holds a similar advantage on the Beyer Speed Figure scale. If Fierceness brings his A-game to the Holy Bull—and based off his sharp workouts, there's no reason to think he won't—his rivals are almost certainly running for second place.

Speaking of second place, who will complete the exacta? Two contenders interest me. #1 Hades is undefeated in two starts against easier competition at Gulfstream, most notably trouncing a seven-furlong allowance for Florida-breds by eight lengths with a 98 Brisnet Speed rating. Stepping up in class and distance are meaningful question marks, but Hades clearly has talent and may prove dangerous if he makes the lead from the rail draw.

#3 Otello is the only stakes winner in the field aside from Fierceness, and his half-length triumph in the one-mile Mucho Macho Man S. at Gulfstream was deceptively strong. Otello had to wait in traffic around the turn and early in the homestretch, and once he found racing room he accelerated nicely. I'd argue Otello would have won by much more with a clean trip, so the son of Curlin has upside for improvement in the Holy Bull. I'll give him the slightest edge over Hades in the battle for second place.


1st: Fierceness
2nd: Otello
3rd: Hades

Robert B. Lewis S. (G3)

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won the Robert B. Lewis a record 11 times, including the last five editions in a row. He can keep his winning streak alive with #6 Nysos, who is undefeated and unchallenged in two starts.

Nysos was tons the best in his debut sprinting six furlongs at Santa Anita, leading all the way to dominate by 10 1/2 lengths with an eye-catching 102 Brisnet Speed rating. Setting fractions of :21.62 and :44.19 did little to tire the son of Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Nyquist, who ran his final quarter-mile in :24.78 to record a strong final time of 1:08.97.

Nysos was arguably even more impressive in the seven-furlong Bob Hope S. (G3). Showing a new dimension in a four-horse field, Nysos settled two lengths off the early tempo in last place before launching an easy rally to beat next-out Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) runner-up #7 Stronghold by 8 3/4 lengths in 1:21.71, earning another 102 Brisnet Speed rating.

Stretching out over one mile shouldn't be an issue for Nysos, who has the pedigree to thrive racing around two turns. With his speed, finishing power, and tractability, he's a formidable and possibly unbeatable favorite.

For second place, I'll side with #5 Coach Prime, a Baffert trainee who broke his maiden by 7 1/4 lengths before finishing third by one length in the Los Alamitos Futurity. In the latter contest, Coach Prime came home half a length behind Stronghold, but it's important to note Stronghold saved ground every step of the way while Coach Prime raced wide.

Coach Pride put up a good fight down the Los Alamitos homestretch and is dropping blinkers for the Robert B. Lewis, which opens the door for improvement. He's also picking up internationally acclaimed jockey Frankie Dettori, who guided Baffert's Newgate to win the 2023 Robert B. Lewis, so I'm optimistic Coach Prime can work out the trip he needs to turn the tables on Stronghold and complete the exacta behind Nysos.


1st: Nysos
2nd: Coach Prime
3rd: Stronghold

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in this week's Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers?


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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.

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