Last weekend, the three-year-old prep season took a one-week break. Focus instead shifted to the older horses, as Gun Runner showed in the Pegasus World Cup why allowing a sound horse to stay in training through age five can be downright magical. We're back to reality this week: Gun Runner has taken up residence at stud, and it's time to turn our eyes back to the ones dreaming of roses and lilies come may.
This weekend, the sophomore trail continues full steam ahead, and Picks and Ponderings takes you to all the points races. This piece will focus on Gulfstream's pair, the Forward Gal (G3) for fillies and the Holy Bull (G2) for open company. In separate pieces, we will check in with Saturday's Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita, Saturday's Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct, and Sunday's Las Virgenes Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita.
Morning lines were not available at original publish time. Updated Thursday, February 1 to include morning lines.
Saturday, February 3 - Gulfstream Park
Race 10: Forward Gal Stakes (G3), three-year-old fillies, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 4:43pm 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 gets her Oaks-winning season started right, with a romp in the 2016 Forward Gal Stakes.
With VIOLENT TIMES and FOXTROT SALLY likely to be on the engine, and MY MISS LILLY and TAKE CHARGE PAULA also likely to be forward, the pace in the Forward Gal should be quite honest. This is Gulfstream, after all -- making it worth watching the earlier part of the card to see if there's a big-day speed bias -- but a pair of horses coming from off the pace intrigue the most in this year's running of the Forward Gal.
MISS MO MENTUM appeals the most. The daughter of Uncle Mo makes her three-year-old debut for trainer Mark Casse and solid Gulfstream rider Tyler Gaffalione. Last out she closed for a romping victory in the Hut Hut Stakes, a one-turn mile at Gulfstream. It came over a sloppy track, but she won over a fast track at Churchill two back, and she had some serious trip trouble in her five-furlong debut over the Gulfstream dirt last year. The timing of her rallies also makes her appealing here; she has shown the ability to get going a little earlier than SULTRY, the other serious closer here. With a solid worktab leading into this start, MISS MO MENTUM should be ready to make a rally and get her three-year-old year off to a winning start.
SULTRY should also be a factor late -- though, as noted above, the question is whether she will get going a bit too late, as she has been a true late closer so far. SULTRY also has to prove she can take to the Gulfstream surface, as she has made all six of her starts to date in Kentucky. But, it strongly appeals that SULTRY has done her best work at extended one-turn trips. In six starts, she has three tries at such trips: a six and a half furlong maiden race at Ellis, a seven-furlong N1X at Keeneland, and a seven-furlong restricted stakes at Churchill. These account for her three wins, making the seven-furlong Forward Gal look a cozy fit. The Eddie Kenneally trainee also gets strong rider Jose Ortiz in the irons, a positive at Gulfstream or anywhere. Should SULTRY take well to the surface, and should Ortiz get her going in time, she also rates a serious win chance here.
Among the speed brigade, TAKE CHARGE PAULA appeals the most. The daughter of Take Charge Indy moves to the barn of Kiaran McLaughlin, who has a 23% strike rate (with positive ROI) with horses making their first start for the barn. She will be forward, but has proven herself able to stalk a bit, and fight on the front end. She also has a win at Gulfstream, albeit over the slop, last out in the House Party Stakes. The presence of Paco Lopez in the irons also stands as a positive for TAKE CHARGE PAULA; she has never run a bad race with Lopez in the irons. She'll be the one the top two choices have to run down late.
#7 MISS MO MENTUM (9/5)
#1 SULTRY (10/1)
#4 TAKE CHARGE PAULA (3/1)
Longshot: Breaking one's maiden against Buckeye-breds at Mahoning Valley doesn't normally lead to a horse being live against graded stakes company, but #3 HEAVENHASMYNIKKI (6/1) then proved her mettle in one-other-than company at Gulfstream on January 18. She rose to the challenge, showed grit in the stretch, and got her nose on the wire first. Here she stretches out one more furlong, something she should be able to handle. Her tactical speed should suit this race perfectly, and she should be sitting just behind the early speed, nicely in range. The drawback is that she loses Tyler Gaffalione to top choice MISS MO MENTUM, but the presence of strong Gulfstream rider Luis Saez is a plus. Let's consider that a lateral move.
Race 12: Holy Bull Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 5:49 EST
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 then retired to stud, siring horses such as Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Giacomo and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Macho Uno.
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.
Barbaro splashes to victory in the 2006 Holy Bull Stakes.
Though many people think Florida in the winter is the Todd Pletcher show, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has had more luck in the Holy Bull, with three wins to Pletcher's one. McLaughlin comes to this year's running with a strong candidate in rail-drawn ENTICED. The Godolphin homebred son of Medaglia d'Oro bypassed the Breeders' Cup, but showed in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs last year that he could take to two turns beautifully. There, he outslugged TIZ MISCHIEF (who he will face again today) for the win. On the shelf since then, he has posted a regular worktab through January, and a debut win at Saratoga last year suggests he can fire fresh. The pace should also suit -- the far-outside-drawn AEQUOR and MISSISSIPPI look the speeds of the race, but ENTICED should be able to track them inside, keeping in range and saving every inch of ground.
Trainer Dale Romans empties the barn for the Holy Bull; in a field of eleven, Romans conditions four. FREE DROP BILLY is the best of his bunch. Though FREE DROP BILLY didn't fire in the Breeders' Cup, his four preceding efforts were strong. Important for an off-pace horse at Gulfstream, FREE DROP BILLY can get going a bit before some of the other closers in this field (most notably as compared to stablemate TIZ MISCHIEF), important given the short stretch there. The rider change is interesting: Robby Albarado, who had been aboard FREE DROP BILLY for all five of his starts last year, has the call on TIZ MISCHIEF instead. But, with new rider Luis Saez riding as well as he does at Gulfstream, that may be a positive.
AUDIBLE is one of a pair from the barn of Todd Pletcher, and the one who looks a bit more live. Distance is the question with this one, as he has never stretched past a mile. His sire (Into Mischief) screams miler, but his female family has enough stamina to suggest a mile and a sixteenth could possibly fall within his wheelhouse. AUDIBLE has not raced at Gulfstream, which is another question, but he has shown enough adaptability in his work at Aqueduct to suggest he is tactical enough to move at the right time. And, he keeps Javier Castellano from an easy win at Aqueduct last out. This is a significant class test -- both in that it's his first stakes outing, as well as the fact that his win last out came against rained-off turfers -- but it won't take a huge step forward from that Aqueduct outing for AUDIBLE to be a serious factor here.
#1 ENTICED (3/1)
#2 FREE DROP BILLY (6/1)
#4 AUDIBLE (6/1)
Longshot: #10 AEQUOR (15/1) draws a tough post, the 10-hole. But, he has taken a liking to the Gulfstream course, with three money finishes in three tries there, including a pair of stakes placings. He also stands to be fast enough compared to the horses on his inside that he could get out quickly and clear to a good position despite his outside post. (And, he'll be a much better price to bet that he'll do that than MISSISSIPPI, another speed horse to his further outside!) AEQUOR also gets a distance test, as he has not yet gone longer than seven furlongs in a race. However, being by Flatter out of a Cryptoclearance mare who has produced a pair of two-turn winners, he has a right to take well to a mile and a sixteenth. If he does, he could fight for a share late at a huge price.
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