April 12, 2021

Five points to ponder: 2021 Holy Bull, Robert B. Lewis

Prime Factor
Prime Factor crushes his debut at Gulfstream Park (Coglianese Photos/Ryan Thompson)

Both Kentucky Derby (G1) preps on Saturday – the Holy Bull S. (G3) at Gulfstream Park and the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) at Santa Anita – offer the familiar paradigm of big maiden winners facing established stakes performers for points on the 10-4-2-1 format to the top four.

The two 1 1/16-mile preps could end up having different degrees of influence on the trail. The Lewis shapes up as arguably the trickier race to handicap, with a well-matched field. But the Holy Bull might have a greater impact over the long haul, by producing a major Derby contender. Such a forecast leans heavily on the up-and-comers at Gulfstream, while perhaps underestimating the players at Santa Anita, so we’ll find out soon enough if it’s wrong-headed.

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Is the Lewis a proxy war between early Derby favorites?

With Hot Rod Charlie last seen finishing second to unbeaten champion Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), and Medina Spirit getting pretty close to Life Is Good in the Sham (G3), it’s easy to interpret their match-up here as a proxy war. But it might not be terribly helpful, considering how different their respective races were.

Hot Rod Charlie had a more complex task in the Breeders’ Cup than Medina Spirit had last time. To outperform his 94-1 odds at Keeneland, the Doug O’Neill pupil had to rally off the hottest pace he’d ever seen, on an unfamiliar track, in his stakes debut in a championship event, and force Essential Quality to deliver a championship performance to outfinish him.

Compare that to the Sham, where Medina Spirit chased his loose-on-the-lead stablemate Life Is Good, who got either bored or tired late. That was evidence of Medina Spirit’s fine attitude, in that he left the promising Parnelli 13 lengths behind in third. Still, it was a straightforward assignment in a five-horse field, three of whom flopped, and thus not necessarily transferrable here. By the same token, it wouldn’t be a shock if Parnelli turned the page on his clunker and did better.

2. The Lewis also has intramural storylines.

For Medina Spirit to enhance his newfound status in the Bob Baffert barn, he’ll have to beat more accomplished stablemate Spielberg. A frequent stakes competitor as a juvenile, Spielberg was underwhelming until finally getting up in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) last out. That was a key photo for the $1 million yearling to post on his resume, but there was a suspicion that O’Neill’s near-miss runner-up, The Great One, was a tad unfortunate to come out on the wrong side of the bob. If Spielberg hasn’t been the best yardstick so far, the Union Rags colt could still have scope to progress. The Great One’s subsequent maiden romp didn’t hurt.

Another smart O’Neill maiden winner, Wipe the Slate, tests his strength against stablemate Hot Rod Charlie. Runner-up to Life Is Good in their mutual debut, Wipe the Slate flattered him when coming back to win handsomely. The son of O’Neill’s 2016 Derby winner Nyquist has more early speed than “Charlie,” but he switched off kindly stalking a fast pace, as though he’ll handle the stretch-out to 1 1/16 miles.

John Shirreffs is also double-handed with the aforementioned Parnelli and Waspirant, but the latter has to improve a fair amount to re-order the depth chart.

3. Prime Factor steps into prime time in the Holy Bull.

Trainer Todd Pletcher preferred to go the allowance route rather than jump straight into a points race with promising Gulfstream debut winners Prime Factor and Amount. But citing the difficulty in getting suitable allowances to fill, Pletcher opted to step them up in class and trip simultaneously in the Holy Bull. The decision might have been easier once Pletcher’s Mutasaabeq was sidelined. Workmanlike when accounting for Papetu and Awesome Gerry in the Mucho Macho Man, Mutasaabeq had been eyeing the Holy Bull until knocked off the trail by a shin issue.

If Prime Factor is ready for prime time, we could see something special. The $900,000 son of Quality Road was the textbook definition of a flashy firster, showing excellent tactical speed before drawing off, in hand, like a serious prospect. The presence of other pace factors, at this level, figures to reduce his style points, but Prime Factor looks plenty good enough to cope. The caveat is that he didn’t have an opportunity to learn much first out, in a maiden that unfolded like a work in company at Palm Beach Downs.

Amount is not to be underestimated, since he got more of an education. Off a beat slow, the Curlin blueblood regrouped in striking range, then had to be driven to advance on the turn. Amount got the message and picked up well to assert in the stretch, suggesting he’ll appreciate a contested pace.

4. Greatest Honour and Roman Centurian come off respective track-and-trip maiden wins.

While Greatest Honour is the slight 5-2 morning-line favorite in the Holy Bull, the broadly analogous Roman Centurian is 8-1 in the Lewis. Both ran in key sprint maidens before scoring their breakthroughs over a route, befitting their stout pedigrees.

The Shug McGaughey-trained Greatest Honour twice finished third, one spot adrift of Caddo River, when both placed to Olympiad at Saratoga and Speaker’s Corner at Belmont. Although just beaten in his first two-turn try at Aqueduct, Greatest Honour was thwarted by a glacial pace. The son of Tapit didn’t get a lot of pace help at Gulfstream either, but he overcame it – and a troubled trip – to continue his upward curve. Aside from being more streetwise than Prime Factor, Greatest Honour stands to benefit from a stronger pace scenario.

Roman Centurian was a creditable fourth behind Life Is Good and Wipe the Slate going 6 1/2 furlongs, pleasing trainer Simon Callaghan who knew he wanted two turns. The Empire Maker colt promptly won next out over this 1 1/16-mile trip at Santa Anita, in emphatic fashion from off the pace. Roman Centurian will be giving a head start to tougher opponents, and coming off Lasix.

5. Rombauer’s background is a clue for the Lewis – and maybe the Holy Bull.

Rombauer, a closing fifth to Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie, has a stronger rebound case in the Lewis than does fellow Breeders’ Cup also-ran Sittin on Go in the Holy Bull. Partly that’s because Sittin on Go has been unplaced again in the interim, following his ninth in the Juvenile with a sixth in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). But it’s also because Rombauer’s lone previous dirt try was a terrific second in the American Pharoah (G1) at this track and trip, leaving Spielberg a distant third.

It might be worth remembering that Rombauer started out on the turf, as did American Pharoah winner Get Her Number. Hot Rod Charlie also had turf experience before waking up in blinkers on dirt. That’s the context for taking a look at Tarantino, formerly a Southern California turf horse, in the Holy Bull. His transfer from Baffert to Rodolphe Brisset is a neon sign that he wasn’t exactly seen as a Derby hope. Yet he was capable on the grass, capturing his debut (where Hot Rod Charlie was fifth) and missing by a whisker in the Zuma Beach. A winner first out for Brisset on the Gulfstream turf, Tarantino is getting a chance on the main track. The $610,000 Pioneerof the Nile colt, who has largely overlapping ownership with former stablemate Spielberg, could have a plot twist up his sleeve on the surface switch.