02/07/2017 11:28AM

Road to the Derby: Holy Bull Stakes analysis

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Barbara D. Livingston
Irish War Cry wins the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream under Joel Rosario.

Grade 2, $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes; 1 1/16 miles; Gulfstream; Feb. 4, 2017
(10 Derby qualifying points for a win, 4 for second, 2 for third, 1 for fourth)

Winner: Irish War Cry, by Curlin
Trainer: Graham Motion
Jockey: Joel Rosario
Owner: Isabelle de Tomaso
Beyer Speed Figure: 97

The Kentucky Derby scene became a little more opaque after this race, in which CLASSIC EMPIRE, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old male champ of 2016, finished a dull third behind the unbeaten and improving IRISH WAR CRY, who ran the fastest fig by a 3-year-old in a Derby prep so far this year.

Irish War Cry was making his first start outside Maryland, his first start in a graded stakes, and his first start around two turns. He also added Lasix for the first time, and picked up Rosario for the first time. He was able to get away with a fairly moderate opening quarter in 24.14 seconds, then threw in a 47.73 half from the quarter to the six-furlong mark before bounding clear down the stretch in a thoroughly impressive performance.

Considering his connections, pedigree, and running style – which keeps him out of traffic trouble – he is absolutely a top Derby contender.

In the Holy Bull, Irish War Cry left alertly and was allowed an uncontested lead. He bounded along eagerly, but was not rank, with Rosario keeping a fairly firm hold on the reins. Every time TALK LOGISTICS or Classic Empire got on Irish War Cry’s hip, Rosario let out a notch, and Irish War Cry always had more to offer. He began to get away from his rivals on the far turn, was a bit late with his lead change in upper stretch, then bounded home with enthusiasm. He’s legit.

GUNNEVERA, who finished second, saved ground in fifth around the first turn, was ridden along down the backstretch to try and close the gap on the leaders, had to check inside a tiring Talk Logistics midway on the far turn, angled off the rail and came into the stretch in the three path, finished with interest, and while no match for the winner was well clear of everyone else. A contested pace in future races will help his cause.

Classic Empire, who finished third, was completely out of sorts before the race. He was washy, and he balked at being loaded into the gate. He did not break sharply, but advanced between rivals early on the clubhouse turn to take up a stalking position in third, three paths wide. He remained in the three path down the backstretch and around the far turn, was within a length of Irish War Cry less than three furlongs from home, was second entering the lane, but emptied out as the top two ran away from him through the stretch.

In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Classic Empire always was going well within himself and looked like he could take his rivals at any point. He wasn’t the same horse here. He’s obviously got some quirks, as was evident with his antics in the Hopeful last summer at Saratoga, but what happened here will remain a mystery until he races again.

I’m inclined to give him a mulligan, since he was clearly not focused on racing even before the Holy Bull based on his pre-race behavior, and his performances last year in the Breeders’ Cup and Breeders’ Futurity were too good to ignore off this one effort. His next start will tell the tale as to whether this was a one-off, or he hasn’t progressed.

Talk Logistics, who finished fourth, broke best of all, then conceded the lead to Irish War Cry and took up a stalking position just outside him in second while just in front of Classic Empire. He was asked aggressively midway on the far turn to hold position, drifted in and then out nearing the top of the stretch, then tired. This was his first try around two turns and against this level of competition. He might be best as a one-run, one-turn horse.

CAVIL, who finished fifth, was caught four paths wide around the first turn, was asked to advance less than three furlongs out while just behind Gunnevera, was fanned wide into the lane outside Talk Logistics, but never really quickened.

PERRO ROJO, who was sixth, had no speed, saved ground the whole way, but was badly outrun throughout. He needs much easier competition.

SHAMSAAN, who was seventh and last, was also well back the whole way and was eased through the lane.