June 8, 2023

Kentucky Derby Report February 8: Irish War Cry, El Areeb make a statement as Classic Empire falters

Irish War Cry upstaged 2-year-old champion Classic Empire in the Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park, establishing himself as a serious contender in his first Kentucky Derby qualifier. The Graham Motion-trained colt shot forward at the break to lead wire-to-wire, rolling home a 3 ¾-length winner with Joel Rosario.

The Holy Bull was one of three points’ races on February 4 along with the Withers (G3) at Aqueduct and Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita.

Holy Bull

A New Jersey-bred son of Curlin, Irish War Cry is now unbeaten from three starts. The chestnut colt won his first two outings sprinting at Laurel Park, impressively rallying to capture his November 11 debut by 4 ½ lengths despite traveling wide and racing greenly. He was included in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager in late November and came back to capture the December 31 Marylander at 7-furlongs, prevailing by a nose in front-running fashion.

Overlooked as the 4-1 third choice among seven contestants, Irish War Cry continued to improve while stretching out to two turns in the Holy Bull. His increasing BRIS Speed numbers (99-100-102) are among the best in the crop and it’s easy to appreciate his century-topping BRIS Late Pace figures (104-104-105).

Irish War Cry is out of a mare by the Danzig stallion Polish Numbers and appears well-suited for longer distances. He kicked home impressively in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull, using long strides to widen his advantage as he reached the wire full of run, and raced well off the rail the entire way indicating he has room for further development.

The up-and-coming sophomore will look to keep moving forward as the probable favorite in the March 4 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream.

While the winner jumped up standings, Classic Empire’s reputation sustained a hit weakening to a well-beaten third. The early Kentucky Derby favorite remains eligible to rebound but this was a terrible way to open a 3-year-old season.

Vance Hanson highlighted why the Holy Bull loss historically works against Classic Empire’s Kentucky Derby chances and Ed DeRosa recognized the negative implications but remained optimistic Classic Empire can turn things around.

Classic Empire was washy in the post parade and reluctant to load and trainer Mark Casse said his charge got worked up shipping from Palm Meadows to Gulfstream Saturday morning. The Pioneerof the Nile colt settled into a good stalking trip after the start, racing close during the early stages before being asked on the far turn, but he came up empty in the final furlongs.

A change in venue awaits the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner and Casse plans to ship in early to acclimate to the surroundings. The March 11 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and March 18 Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park are options.

Perhaps the competition has caught up to Classic Empire at age 3 but I’ll wait until next time before drawing any definitive conclusions.

A multiple graded stakes-winning juvenile, Gunnevera rallied well to be a clear second after being steadied on the far turn. You can appreciate his finishing kick, with the Dialed In colt closing dynamically from last-to-first in a 5 3/4-length Delta Jackpot (G3) victory, but the confirmed closer needs to start earning better Speed ratings, netting a career-best 97 making his seventh career start in the Holy Bull.


El Areeb has been a man among boys in a pair of Aqueduct preps this winter, a necessary quality for a major Kentucky Derby contender given the questionable level of competition on the inner oval. He captured the January 2 Jerome (G3) by 11 lengths on a muddy track, lending itself to questions about what role the wet conditions played, but El Areeb squashed any legitimacy concerns with a superb 4 ¼-length tally in the 1 1/16-mile Withers under fast conditions.

The pace was slow, negatively impacting the gray colt’s 99 BRIS Speed rating, and El Areeb could’ve taken it to his rivals from the start. He posted wire-to-wire victories in his final two sprint appearances at Laurel Park last year, but the son of Exchange Rate has shown terrific adaptability since stretching out to two turns at age 3, stalking a fast pace in the Jerome and relaxing comfortably a couple lengths behind glacial fractions in the Withers.

El Areeb waited for Trevor McCarthy to ask nearing the conclusion of the far turn and the response was immediate as jumped forward to a clear lead, powering into the stretch with smooth and efficient strides. He didn’t appear to be trying hard registering a whopping 119 BRIS Late Pace rating.

Exchange Rate isn’t known for producing Triple Crown types but El Areeb’s stamina-infused female family offers encouragement for the Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky-bred is out of an A.P. Indy mare and counts Mr. Prospector as the second maternal damsire, with Canadian champion and Queen’s Plate winner Regal Intention hailing from the third dam.

El Areeb has now won four straight convincingly, earning a pair of triple-digit BRIS Speed ratings. Trainer Cathal Lynch is planning to wait for the April 8 Wood Memorial (G1) and El Areeb will take some beating as he steps up to face deeper company.

Robert B. Lewis

After breaking his maiden at Del Mar in late November, Royal Mo made it two straight wins while jumping straight to a qualifier in the Robert Lewis. His speed proved to be a tactical advantage against a quartet of suspect rivals, but it was disappointing to see only a 95 BRIS Speed rating after Royal Mo established a solid pace and drew clear to win by 3 ½ lengths in the 1 1/16-mile event.

He’ll need to step up his game to defeat better rivals next time and Royal Mo is second fiddle presently to stablemate Gormley, who is also owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jerome Moss, trained by John Shirreffs and ridden by Victor Espinoza. That rival captured the FrontRunner (G1) in his second start last fall and registered a 102 Speed number when opening the year with a win in the January 7 Sham (G3).

Shirreffs said he is keeping all options open but I expect him to keep Gormley and Royal Mo separated, utilizing the Arkansas route as well as the upcoming San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1) out west.

Royal Mo is from the second crop of Uncle Mo, sire of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, and grass racing will always be an option given his turf-oriented female family.

Other horses of interest

Unique Bella is nominated to the Triple Crown and as my colleague Kellie Reilly noted in a recent Kentucky Derby speculation blog on the rising filly star, her Chilean-based owners like to race fillies against males at home. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer may not be too keen on the idea, but Unique Bella could run herself into the Santa Anita Derby equation if she comes back to post another brilliant victory in the Santa Ysabel (G2) on March 4.

Stretching out to two turns for the first time in the February 5 Las Virgenes (G2) at Santa Anita, the gray Tapit filly left 2-year-old filly champion Champagne Room in the dust as she drew off to an 8 ¾-length decision, netting a 106 BRIS Speed rating. That’s better than any figure recorded by a male counterpart this year.

Battalion Runner is headed for a Kentucky Derby qualifier after recording an allowance triumph at Gulfstream on February 3. The gray colt produced a 100 BRIS Speed rating when breaking his maiden the second time out by 9 ¾ lengths and earned a 96 while stretching out to two turns here, receiving a nice challenge from pacesetter Beasley before finishing strongly to win going away by 1 ¼ lengths. Todd Pletcher conditions the long-striding Unbridled’s Song colt.

Hedge Fund broke his maiden stretching out to two turns on February 4 for Pletcher, parlaying a front-running trip into a four-length tally. By Super Saver, the chestnut colt is a half-brother to multiple Grade 2 winner Stanford. Hedge Fund, who registered a 90 BRIS Speed rating in his second career start, is eligible to jump straight to a stakes race.


The Road to the Kentucky Derby series heads to Tampa Bay Downs for the February 11 Sam F. Davis (G3) and the 1 1/16-mile race features the highly-anticipated return of unbeaten McCraken, who was last seen posting a 1 ¼-length win as the odds-on favorite in the November 26 Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs. The Ian Wilkes-trained colt has rallied to win all three starts under the Twin Spires and I’m looking forward to seeing how the son of Ghostzapper transfers his form elsewhere.

Kentucky Derby hopefuls Fact Finding, No Dozing and Wild Shot add depth to the nine-horse field.

Kentucky Derby Top 20

  1. IRISH WAR CRY: Smashing Holy Bull win vaults him to top spot in wide-open year
  2. EL AREEB: Love the outstanding turn of foot he’s displayed, class test coming in Wood Memorial
  3. CLASSIC EMPIRE: Pre-race antics troubling but can regain some lost luster if able to rebound next time
  4. MCCRAKEN: Unbeaten colt brings lofty reputation into Sam Davis
  5. AMERICAN ANTHEM: Bodemeister colt is fast, eligible to make big strides for Baffert
  6. GORMLEY: Serious prospect out west for Zenyatta’s connections
  7. MASTERY: Unbeaten Los Alamitos Futurity hero expected back in March
  8. MO TOWN: Remsen winner gives sire Uncle Mo a chance for two straight
  9. BATTALION RUNNER: Looks like the type who will keep improving at longer distances
  10. PRACTICAL JOKE: Can’t knock form but not a fan of his prospects at 10 furlongs
  11. GUNNEVERA: Late runner very honest but still some quality concerns
  12. NO DOZING: Liked Remsen runner-up finish, will learn more in Sam Davis
  13. WILD SHOT: Ky Jockey Clun runner-up returns in Sam Davis
  14. GUEST SUITE: Lecomte winner has work to do to join upper echelon
  15. ROYAL MO: Lewis winner making good progress but same boat as Guest Suite
  16. FACT FINDING: Scratched from Holy Bull, find out if he’s legit in Sam Davis
  17. UNCONTESTED: Smarty Jones winner brings speed to equation but distance a ?
  18. DABSTER: Won’t be surprised if $1 million Curlin colt is a late bloomer for Baffert
  19. FAJA: Exits a runaway maiden tally for Pletcher
  20. J BOYS ECHO: Romans trainee rallied for third behind slow Withers pace