The last time racing fans saw grade II winner Cairo Prince, he was ding-donging down the stretch with highly regarded Honor Code in a thrilling edition of the Nov. 30 Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The Kiaran McLaughlin trainee lost that 1 1/8-mile test by a brutal nose in the final jump, but comes back Jan. 25 in the $400,000 Miller Lite Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park minus his Shug McGaughey-trained foe to contend with—plus a lesson learned by rider Luis Saez.
McLaughlin attributed the tough Remsen loss to a six-pound weight advantage in Honor Code's favor and a rider error by Saez, who nevertheless retained the mount.
"He knows he made a mistake, but everyone makes mistakes," said McLaughlin, who was critical of Saez for falling into the trap of an extremely slow early pace and allowing Honor Code to rally inside of him. "He knows the horse and he knows not to make the same mistakes."
Breaking from Post 7 under high weight of 122 pounds, this Pioneerof the Nile colt heads a stout field of 11 sophomore contenders in his first start since the Remsen for the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull that drew the likes of undefeated Coup de Grace, Pat Byrne trainee Almost Famous, and another runner from the McGaughey barn, Phipps Stable homebred Mr Speaker.
The Holy Bull kicks off the 3-year-old series in South Florida and is an important steppingstone to the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream on March 29. It is worth 10 points to the winner on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), with a 4-2-1 value assigned to the three runners that follow.
"When you get on the Derby trail, they're all going to be tough. I think we have a really nice horse, and I wouldn't trade places with anybody," McLaughlin said.
Cairo Prince, who romped to victory in the Nov. 3 Nashua (gr. II) off a powerful October maiden win at Belmont Park, suffered his first loss in three starts in the Remsen after taking the lead in the stretch only to lose the tightest of photo finishes. He races for Namcook Stables, Paul Braverman, Harvey A. Clarke, and Craig W. Robertson III.
While the highweight has already gone a route of ground, Gulfstream's middle-distance test will be the first chance for many young runners to stretch out. That's the case with Fox Hill Farm's Coup de Grace, who broke his maiden in November at Aqueduct for trainer Chad Brown and came back Dec. 15 to take a one-mile allowance at Gulfstream gate-to-wire by a length.
"He's unproven around two turns, and it's a real test for him," Brown said of the Tapit runner who will be ridden from the rail by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez while carrying 116 pounds. "I think it's that time of year to try him around two turns and then we can figure out how to campaign him the rest of the year."
Mr Speaker also comes off a one-mile winning effort, that on the turf in the Dania Beach Stakes (gr. IIIT) on Dec. 21. After watching the Pulpit colt cavort by 2 3/4 lengths in his stakes debut, McGaughey couldn't resist the temptation to try him on the main track.
"He's trained good on the dirt. I thought somewhere along the line I was going to give him this kind of opportunity," McGaughey said. "I didn't know it was going to be now but this is something I did have on my mind to give him the opportunity."
Any trainer with a talented 3-year-old colt would have done exactly the same thing, but McGaughey, who saddled Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby winner Orb last year, has solid reasons to suspect Mr Speaker can handle the footing.
"Pulpit never ran on turf and his dam never ran on turf," McGaughey said. "He's always trained good on it."
Being a son of Pulpit, who won the 1997 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) on Gulfstream's main track and out of the graded stakes-placed Unbridled mare Salute (a daughter of undefeated champion Personal Ensign), Mr Speaker would seem suited to dirt at the highest level.
"I think he's equipped to make the jump. It's a matter whether he'll make the jump from turf to dirt. He's already done it on the turf. He went from a maiden to a grade III, we'll just have to see if he does it on the dirt," said McGaughey, who awarded the return mount aboard Mr Speaker to Jose Lezcano. The duo departs Post 6 with 120 pounds.
One already proven at dirt and a distance is Chuck and Maribeth Sandford's Almost Famous, who comes into the Holy Bull off a six-length romp going 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs in his first try around two turns. Previously, he had won his debut in September but finished a distant fourth in the Street Sense Stakes, his Oct. 27 return.
"His first race was spectacular, then in his second race, he kind of went to sleep on me," said Byrne, who saddled Take Charge Indy to victory for the same connections in the 2012 Florida Derby. "I kind of babied him. It was my fault. He'd been off for seven weeks. He kind of just went around in place. He just didn't run. It was nothing to do with talent. I wheeled him back in 14 days, put blinkers on him and he galloped."
Jockey Calvin Borel, who guided Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby, will be aboard Almost Famous from the 4 hole with a 116-pound assignment. The son of Unbridled's Song was the morning-line favorite for the Nov. 30 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill, but was scratched due to a stone bruise.
James Jerkens, who saddled Quality Road for victories in the 2009 Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, is scheduled to saddle Centennial Farms' Remsen third-place finisher Wicked Strong for the Holy Bull. The son of Hard Spun finished just a half-length behind Honor Code and Cairo Prince in the Remsen.
Conquest Titan, who won the Swynford Stakes at Woodbine for Conquest Stables, rebounded from a 13th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park with an allowance victory at Churchill to conclude his 2-year-old campaign for trainer Mark Casse.