After last week's Pegasus card, when older horses took the spotlight, attention focuses back on the three-year-olds this week. Here at Picks and Ponderings, we turn our attention to sunny Florida again, as Gulfstream Park hosts a pair of well-subscribed three-year-old races.
Along the Derby trail, the Holy Bull Stakes (GI2) features the eagerly awaited return of last year's two-year-old champion, CLASSIC EMPIRE. Though some expected a short field to face him, that did not happen. Instead, eight others have signed on to face him, including multiple graded stakes winner GUNNEVERA and well-regarded mid-Atlantic invader IRISH WAR CRY.
The Forward Gal Stakes (G2), Gulfstream's first race on the way to the Kentucky Oaks, also drew a field of nine. Like the Holy Bull, its headliner is a Grade 1 winner from the Mark Casse shedrow: PRETTY CITY DANCER, who makes her first start since a dead-heat victory in the Spinaway (G1) at Saratoga. Though none of her foes have won in graded company yet, five of the eight fillies she faces have won a stakes already.
Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Edited February 2 to include morning lines.
Race 6: Forward Gal Stakes (G2), three-year-old fillies, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 2:30pm EST
This race takes its name from Florida-bred Forward Gal. A winner of the Schuylkill, the Sorority, the Spinaway, and the Frizette, the daughter of Native Charger was named the champion two-year-old filly of 1970. She continued her winning ways at three, winning four more stakes that year. Despite being a Gulfstream stakes namesake, however, none of those stakes wins came in the state where she was bred, but rather in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
The Forward Gal Stakes has always been a seven-furlong test over the Gulfstream main. It first earned a Grade 3 in 1986, and was promoted to a Grade 2 in 1991. It was downgraded to a G3 again in 1997, but shifted back to a G2 in 2004. It has maintained that status ever since. Two Forward Gal winners have eventually parlayed that into a blanket of Kentucky Oaks lilies: Open Mind in 1989, and Cathryn Sophia in 2016. Beyond that pair, there have been several other very classy winners. Miss Oceana (1984), victress in the Arlington-Washington Lassie (GI) the previous year, fell short in the Oaks, finishing second behind Lucky Lucky Lucky. But, Miss Oceana won six Grade I races across her two- and three-year-old years. Forever Together (2007) found her best as an older horse on the grass, winning the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf the following year.
Cathryn Sophia overcomes a tough trip to win the 2016 Forward Gal decisively.
This year's edition of the Forward Gal Stakes once again offers a purse of $200,000 as well as Road to the Kentucky Oaks points (10-4-2-1) to the top four finishers. It drew a field of nine sophomore fillies to fight for those spoils.
Much of the ink for this race will likely be devoted to PRETTY CITY DANCER and BODE'S DREAM.
PRETTY CITY DANCER, a G1 winner in her last start, is the class of the race. But, this is her first start since that September 3 victory, and she needed a start before she shwoed her best last year. Add to this that PRETTY CITY DANCER is a closer at Gulfstream? Trainer Mark Casse will prepare her as well as he can, but she may need a start before she wins. If there's a time to be against her, it's here. It's now.
BODE'S DREAM, on the other hand, is fresher, and will be forward. But, she seems one-way speed. She lost a race-long speed duel last out to WILDCAT KATE, and will have even more to deal with on the front end here with WILDCAT KATE back in the mix and MY LERLER joining the fray. She was an underlay last month, and though she won't be 1/2 in the Forward Gal, she will be an underlay again today.
Okay. Enough about the stand-against horses. Let's talk about horses to like in the Forward Gal.
A John Servis trainee breaks her maiden at Parx, goes to Laurel to win the Gin Talking, and then ships to Gulfstream for the Forward Gal...sound familiar? No, we're not talking about Cathryn Sophia, though last year's Oaks winner took that route to her Forward Gal victory. Instead, we are talking about MS LOCUST POINT. The daughter of Dialed In graduated second out in Philadelphia, then won the Gin Talking in a romp. The Gin Talking is a seven-furlong race -- just like the Forward Gal. Though that was a wire-to-wire score, MS LOCUST POINT proved in her maiden win that she can rate off the leader and make a run -- helpful here, with speed in the race. She fits on speed, she fits on style, and she will be the right price in the Forward Gal.
WILDCAT KATE and SUMMER LUCK also deserve a look. WILDCAT KATE wore down BODE'S DREAM in the Old Hat last out. Though she stretches to seven furlongs here, it is not unusual to see a daughter of Kantharos take to an extended sprint, and she just missed at six and a half panels back in November. Also, that came from right on the lead -- WILDCAT KATE has proven herself a bit better from just off it, and that is where she stands to be here. SUMMER LUCK is the "Casse B" to PRETTY CITY DANCER's "Casse A". She mustered just third behind WILDCAT KATE in the Old Hat, but that was her first start off a break since November. She also had a poor start there. A better beginning should help. And, the stretch from the six furlongs of the Old Hat to the seven of the Forward Gal should help as well. SUMMER LUCK broke her maiden going the one-turn mile at Churchill Downs, and missed by just a neck in her six-and-a-half furlong debut.
#6 MS LOCUST POINT (5/1)
#7 WILDCAT KATE (6/1)
#8 SUMMER LUCK (6/1)
Longshot: #9 LIRICA (20/1) has raced seven times in her career -- and never been out of the exacta in her five tries over the Gulfstream Park main track. Given the location of the Forward Gal, her track record as a Gulfstream Park Horse plays to her advantage. In addition, she has extended one-turn form: two starts back, she won a sloppy renewal of the one-mile Hut Hut Stakes at Gulfstream. Her other two career wins have come on fast Gulfstream dirt, however, allaying fears that LIRICA is just a slop monster. On pace, she tends to stalk, or at furthest track midpack -- perfect for a race with plenty of speed in front of her. LIRICA will have to take a step forward to win this, but given her love of Gulfstream, it's a possibility at a big price.
Race 12: Holy Bull Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:35 CST
This race, the first of Gulfstream Park's series of formal Kentucky Derby prep races, was inaugurated in 1990 as the Preview Stakes. It was renamed in 1996 to honour Florida-bred Hall of Fame inductee Holy Bull. A winner of thirteen of his sixteen lifetime starts, the Bull took the Florida route down the Derby trail in 1994. He won the Hutcheson Stakes (then a Grade 2), and though he faltered and finished sixth in the Fountain of Youth (G2), he came back and won the Florida Derby (G1) easily. Though he failed as the favourite in the Kentucky Derby, he returned Memorial Day weekend to romp over older horses in the Met Mile (GI). That race began a six-race win streak for him. It only ended when he suffered a career-ending injury in the Donn Handicap (G1), during his anticipated match-up with Cigar. He retired to stud; after siring horses such as Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Giacomo and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Macho Uno, he now lives the pensioned life at Darley's Jonabell Farm.
Currently run at 1 1/16 miles, the Holy Bull Stakes has been run at distances as short as a mile and as long as 1 3/16 miles. A Grade 3 for much of its history, it gained its current Grade 2 status in 2014. Two winners of this race have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. Go for Gin, who won this race in 1994, prevailed over Holy Bull himself in the Kentucky Derby. Barbaro also won this race in 2006.
Dialed In rallies to take the 2011 Holy Bull Stakes. He was last year's leading first-crop sire, and his son GUNNEVERA entered this year's Holy Bull.
This year's edition features a $350,000 purse (down $50,000 from 2011-2015), as well as Road to the Kentucky Derby points (10-4-2-1) for the top four finishers.
CLASSIC EMPIRE, making his first start since his Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) triumph, will be a short price. So, a question hangs in the air: even first off the lay, will he be the goods? This space thinks so. The Mark Casse barn sires at 18% with runners coming in off of lays of 90 days or more, and CLASSIC EMPIRE himself fired decisively on debut. He has proven himself a versatile sort, rallying from well off the pace in his sprint tries, and showing the ability to stalk and press as well. He is a perfect four-for-four when keeping his rider in the irons, and rider Julien Leparoux has been there for all four of those starts. CLASSIC EMPIRE has also proven himself at two turns, winning a pair of Grade 1 races at a mile and a sixteenth last fall. Sometimes trying to beat the chalk seems too cute, and this is one of those times. Find your prices elsewhere; single CLASSIC EMPIRE here.
For underneath -- or for anyone determined to play longshots, or looking for that last-ditch handicapping contest price -- give IRISH WAR CRY a look. He had been expected to go to Tampa Bay Downs for the Sam F. Davis (G3), where he would have to face McCraken but not CLASSIC EMPIRE. Yet, trainer Graham Motion brings him here. Motion does not tend to overshoot with his horses, suggesting he judges that IRISH WAR CRY belongs here. This three-year-old son of Curlin has shown pace versatility, should improve with a bit more distance, and adds Lasix for the first time. Motion wins at 23% going first-time Lasix, with a positive ROI. The one concern was his rankness in the Marylander last out -- though, he overcame it, fought on the front from gate to wire, and salvaged the win. If the rank IRISH WAR CRY shows up in the Holy Bull, it will be tough sailing. But, if the professional IRISH WAR CRY who won his debut at Laurel returns for the Holy Bull, he looks the most credible challenger to CLASSIC EMPIRE.
This is a Derby prep in Florida, and rarely can we talk about a Derby prep in Florida without uttering the name Todd Pletcher. FACT FINDING represents the Toddster's barn here. He enters the race a perfect three-for-three: a maiden win at Saratoga, an allowance win at Keeneland, and then a romping victory in a sloppy edition of the Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream last month. Here, FACT FINDING takes the next step up in class, but should handle that move admirably. The son of The Factor has every right to take to two turns, he has shown the ability to take the lead or stalk the pace, and he gets Todd Pletcher's "A" rider in John Velazquez.
#3 CLASSIC EMPIRE (3/5)
#5 IRISH WAR CRY (15/1)
#6 FACT FINDING (6/1)
Longshot: #7 SHAMSAAN (20/1) is one of two entries from the Kieran McLaughlin barn, the other being CAVIL. But, while CAVIL was exposed as a need-the-lead-sort when he finished a disappointing sixth as the chalk in the Mucho Macho Man, SHAMSAAN was able to close from well off the pace to win a Gulfstream maiden special weight last month in decisive fashion. Though the pace seems unlikely to fall apart, CAVIL will not be alone on the front end. Instead, he stands to make pace for stablemate SHAMSAAN. He keeps rider Luis Saez, a 22% winner on this Gulfstream meet, in the irons. Demand a price on SHAMSAAN, as this will be his first try on dirt -- and his first try against dirt horses, since his maiden win came in a wash off the turf. But, he won it the right way, and it hardly seems odd that a son of Bernardini would find his place going two turns on the dirt.
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Arlington International Racecourse. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.