A competitive field is set for Saturday’s $400,000 Miller Lite Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
Trainer Shug McGaughey will send out Mr Speaker, winner of the Dania Beach Stakes (G3) on turf last time out. Mr Speaker will be racing over dirt for the first time in the Holy Bull.
“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 Florida Derby (G1) and Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Orb last year, has some pretty solid reasons to suspect that the son of Pulpit can handle the footing on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
“Pulpit never ran on turf and his dam never ran of turf,” said McGaughey, whose colt came off a maiden win to capture the Dania Beach. “He’s always trained good on it.”
Being a son of Pulpit, who won the 1997 Fountain of Youth (G2) on Gulfstream’s main track, and Salute, a daughter of undefeated champion Personal Ensign, Mr Speaker would seem suited to dirt at the highest levels.
“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 3,” said McGaughey, who awarded the return mount aboard Mr Speaker to Jose Lezcano. “We’ll just have to see if he does it on the dirt.”
The talented field entered Monday for the Holy Bull presents a challenge for all 11 candidates for the 1 1/16-mile stakes, an important steppingstone to the $1 million Besilu Stables Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream On March 29.
Mr Speaker is scheduled to meet Nashua Stakes (G2) winner Cairo Prince, undefeated Coup de Grace, Remsen Stakes (G2) third-place finisher Wicked Strong, Churchill Downs allowance winner Almost Famous, and Woodbine stakes winner Conquest Titan.
“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,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Cairo Prince.
Cairo Prince, who romped to victory in the Nashua, suffered his first loss in three starts in the Remsen, in which he took the lead in the stretch, only to lose the tightest of photo finishes to the highly regarded McGaughey-trained Honor Code.
McLaughlin attributed the heart-breaking loss to a six-pound weight advantage in Honor Code’s favor and rider error by Luis Saez, who has maintained the mount aboard Cairo Prince for the Holy Bull.
“He knows he made a mistake, but everyone makes mistakes,” said McLaughlin, who was critical of the rider 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.”
Almost Famous comes into the Holy Bull off a six-length romp at Churchill Downs in his first race around two turns. Previously, he had won his debut and finished a distant fourth in his return.
“His first race was spectacular, then in his second race, he kind of went to sleep on me. 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,” said trainer Patrick Byrne, who saddled Take Charge Indy for a victory in the 2012 Florida Derby. “I wheeled him back in 14 days, put blinkers on him and he galloped.”
Borel, who guided Take Charge Indy in the Florida Derby, will be aboard Almost Famous.
James Jerkens, who saddled Quality Road for victories in the 2009 Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, is scheduled to saddle Wicked Strong for the Holy Bull. The son of Hard Spun finished just a half-line behind Honor Code and Cairo Prince in the Remsen.
Coupe de Grace, a son of Tapit trained by Chad Brown, has won both of his starts, including a mile allowance at Gulfstream on Dec. 15.
“He’s unproven around two turns, and it’s a real test for him,” Brown said. “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.”
Conquest Titan, who won the Swinford Stakes at Woodbine, followed up a 13th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) with an allowance victory at Churchill Downs to conclude his 2-year-old campaign for trainer Mark Casse.
Todd Pletcher-trained Intense Holiday finished fourth in the Remsen.
“Intense Holiday is training well. I thought his race in the Remsen was sneaky good,” Pletcher said. “He had a bit of a troubled trip in the Nashua so hopefully we’re heading in the right direction with him.”
Financial Mogul, Best Plan Yet, Our Caravan and Big Bazingo round out the field.
Gulfstream Park photo by Lauren King