Classic Empire established himself as the clear Kentucky Derby favorite entering 2017 and the journey toward the first Saturday in May begins Saturday in the $350,000 Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park. The unanimous 2-year-old champion will square off against eight challengers and the 1 1/16-mile race offers a total of 17 points (10-4-2-1) toward a berth in a 20-horse starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Last seen defeating the now-retired Not This Time in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita, Classic Empire registered a 108 BRIS Speed rating in his juvenile finale that towers over the Kentucky Derby landscape presently. However, he will need to keep moving forward at age 3 to maintain his advantage.
The Mark Casse-trained colt is unbeaten in races finished, the lone blemish on his five-start resume coming when he reared and dumped the jockey at the beginning of the Hopeful (G1). Classic Empire is by Pioneerof the Nile, sire of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, and the bay colt will break post 3 with regular rider Julien Leparoux.
Gunnevera owns the best credentials among rivals, posting victories in the Saratoga Special (G2) and Delta Jackpot (G3). He offered a scintillating last-to-first move in his final juvenile appearance, drawing off to a 5 ¾-length decision in the Delta Jackpot, and the Antonio Sano-trained colt broke his maiden at Gulfstream last summer. His deep closing style may not be ideal at Saturday’s 1 1/6-mile trip, but the son of Dialed In still merits serious respect for a top three finish. Javier Castellano has the call.
Unbeaten in three attempts for Todd Pletcher, Fact Finding may wind up as the second betting choice. The gray colt exits an eye-catching win in the December 10 Smooth Air over the track, scoring by seven widening lengths at a one-turn mile, and the son of The Factor will make his first two-turn attempt here. Fact Finding earned a 101 BRIS Speed rating last time, the second-best number among Holy Bull participants, and keeps John Velazquez in the saddle.
Trainer Graham Motion shipped Irish War Cry to South Florida following a game win in the December 31 Marylander at Laurel Park and the Curlin colt will attempt to carry his promising form forward in a difficult spot. A convincing maiden score in his career debut, Irish War Cry has shown good versatility winning from far off the pace and in wire-to-wire fashion, and his BRIS Speed numbers are solid (99 and 100). He will receive a rider switch to Joel Rosario.
Cavil will attempt to rebound from a disappointing sixth as the favorite in the January 7 Mucho Macho Man and multiple stakes-placed Talk Logistics, who finished third in the Mucho Macho Man, is also entered. Completing the Holy Bull field are last-out maiden winners Fire for Effect and Shamsaan; and overmatched longshot Perro Rojo.
Earlier on the program, a nice field of six sophomores will square in the $200,000 Swale (G2) at 7-furlongs. Sonic Mule, who exits wins in the Mucho Macho Man and Buffalo Man at Gulfstream, is a leading contender but the Pletcher-trainee will face a couple of well-regarded rivals in Favorable Outcome and Three Rules. The former finished third in the Champagne before a failed experiment in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) and the latter won five straight, including a sweep of the Florida Stallion Series, prior to a sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.