Kentucky Derby qualifying points are up for grabs coast-to-coast Saturday in the $350,000 Lambholm South Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park, the $250,000 Withers (G3) at Aqueduct Racetrack, and the $150,000 Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita Park.
All three races are at 1 1/16 miles and offer 17 points on a 10-4-2-1 basis. The Holy Bull is the last of 12 races at Gulfstream, which carded four other stakes for 3-year-olds including the Swale (G2) and Forward Gal (G2), a pair of seven-furlong sprints worth $200,000 apiece. The Lewis is the second of nine races at Santa Anita and precedes a trio of grade 2 stakes, the Palos Verdes, San Antonio, and the San Marcos.
If you're thinking a pick three on the three Derby prep races—all scheduled within a 95-minute window—would surely stimulate some nationwide interest in the proceedings, you're right.
And you're also out of luck, because that makes too much sense.
Holy Bull (GP race 12, 5:35 ET): The concluding leg of a $500,000 late pick four and $250,000 late pick five will be a stand-alone on many tickets, as Classic Empire (#3) makes his seasonal debut in a surprisingly large field of nine. The unanimous division champion was the favored individual betting interest in the first two pools of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, and the two-time Grade 1 winner figures to be 3-5 in a spot where Gunnevera (#1) is the only other graded stakes winner.
For weeks now, Mark Casse has been saying everything needed to go right for Classic Empire to make the Holy Bull, so his presence tells us things are on schedule. The stalk-and-pounce style he used to win the Breeders' Futurity (G1) and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) is tailor made for Gulfstream, and keep in mind that 1 1/16-mile races here begin at the finish line, but end at the sixteenth pole.
The shortened stretch run ostensibly hinders the chances of a deep closer like Gunnevera. On the other hand, there should be ample early pace with Irish War Cry (#5) and Fact Finding (#6) stretching out after front-running wins in minor stakes, and Cavil (#8) could be sent early as well.
Talk Logistics (#4) was beaten less than two lengths by Swale contender Sonic Mule in two one-turn starts earlier this winter, and rates a look at a price as he stretches out on the heels of a sharply improved workout last week.
If I'm going to be alive to anyone but the favorite in multi-race wagers, a lot of other things have to go right in earlier legs.
A - 3
B – none
C – 1, 4, 5, 6, 8
Withers (Aqu, race 8, 4:20 ET): Many bettors will regard blowout Jerome (G3) winner El Areeb (#4) as a free bingo square, which is understandable after three straight wins by better than 25 lengths.
But the Jerome was run over a sealed muddy track, and El Areeb was handed the lead on a platter after even-money favorite Takaful spit the bit before going six furlongs.
This is a bit of an ambitious assignment for last-out maiden winners Apartfromthecrowd (#2) and Fillet of Sole (#6), but either or both may be capable of making an impact from off the pace, especially if stretch-outs like Always a Suspect (#7) and Square Shooter (#9) pressure the favorite early.
Apartfromthecrowd was rank behind the leaders heading to the first turn of his maiden win three weeks ago, but settled down through the middle fractions and kicked clear nicely in the stretch along the rail.
Fillet of Sole's margin of victory in the slop at Parx Racing was only a nose, but the horse he ran down, Curtis, had 18 lengths on the third finisher and came back to win big two starts later. Now making his third start since a trainer change to Todd Pletcher, this $350,000 colt by Union Rags has not been on a fast track since his second career start at Saratoga Race Course, when he stumbled at the break and came flying late for third behind Fact Finding, who puts his 3-for-3 record on the line in the Holy Bull.
A – 4
B – 2, 6
Robert B. Lewis (SA, race 2, 1:00 PT): With the locally based heavy heads awaiting future races, this five-horse edition of the Lewis came up especially light, and Doug O'Neill accounts for 60% of the field with Cecil B. DeMille (G3) winner Term of Art (#4), Oak Tree Juvenile winner Dangerfield (#3) and the maiden Irap (#2), who beat Dangerfield when second in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1).
It's a tough race to have a decent opinion on, because which Royal Mo do we get: the one who hesitated leaving the gate and was last of 12 through the early going of his second start, or the one who went wire to wire three weeks later?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Let's take a quick look at Gulfstream's Swale and Forward Gal, which can be linked in daily doubles, pick threes, or as the first two legs of a mid-card pick four.
Swale (GP, race 5, 2:00 ET): There's no mystery about who the first two betting choices will be, because Three Rules (#3) is 7-5 on the morning line and Favorable Outcome (#4) is the 8-5 second choice in the field of six.
Three Rules ran off five wins at Gulfstream before giving futile chase in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and with a bankroll of $700,000, he has earned more money than the others combined.
Favorable Outcome was out of his element in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, but showed high promise in two dirt starts prior to that: a big-figure debut win at Saratoga, followed by a third-place finish in a fast-paced Champagne (G1).
There's also Sonic Mule (#2), the likely third choice who has won three in a row with steadily improving numbers.
At 12-1 on the line, the horse I'm going to fool around with is Vanish (#5), whose three races over the Tapeta surface at Woodbine last fall hint at some real ability. True, the Mark Casse-trained runner has no dirt experience and hasn't been out since November, but that was the same profile exhibited by his stablemate State of Honor when he ran Sonic Mule to a photo in the Mucho Macho Man at 13-1 recently. His fourth in the Display was better than it looks on paper (four wide, solid gallop-out), and seven furlongs may hit this Algorithms colt right between the eyes.
What I like to do with interesting longshots like this—and what I should've done with Shaman Ghost last week but didn't—is fashion a makeshift across-the-board wager: a win bet, exacta savers underneath the logical contenders, and trifecta part-wheels keying the perceived stroke of genius in the third slot.
A – 3, 4
B – 2
C - 5
Forward Gal (GP, race 6, 2:30 ET): It's a busy day for the Casse stable, as Pretty City Dancer (#4) makes her first appearance since dead-heating for the win in the Spinaway (G1) closing weekend at Saratoga.
That was not a particularly strong renewal of the Spinaway in terms of both the running time and the subsequent exploits of the field, and not only did Pretty City Dancer draw her fourth consecutive trouble line at the gate, she also raced rather greenly in the stretch.
The up-and-comer looks like Ms Locust Point (#6), whose trainer, John Servis, won last year's Forward Gal with evental Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia. The main concern is her post draw, as she is a filly with a lot of natural speed,and must break between two others with similar running styles, Bode's Dream (#3) and Wildcat Kate (#7).
A – 4, 6
B – 3, 7
C – 2, 8