Five things to know for Kentucky Derby preps: Holy Bull, Withers, Lewis

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February 1st, 2019

The 2019 Kentucky Derby (G1) trail is officially heating up with three points races on tap Saturday. The Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park, Withers (G3) at Aqueduct, and Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita offer 17 points apiece, apportioned on the familiar 10-4-2-1 scale to the top four finishers in each. All three preps share the well-known theme of the established stakes performers taking on up-and-comers. Here are five things to know about Saturday’s scoring races:
  1. The Holy Bull features a clash between unbeaten Remsen (G2) winner Maximus Mischief, the even-money favorite, and the 5-2 Mihos, victorious in the Mucho Macho Man over this track. But it’s not necessarily a two-horse race, especially with the possibility of a wet track inserting a new variable for the lightly raced three-year-olds. Epic Dreamer, who split future Nashua (G3) hero Vekoma and Mihos when second in their mutual debut, is plainly better than his troubled sixth in the Springboard Mile, and the son of 2013 Derby winner Orb accordingly has dark horse appeal at 15-1. Federal Case brings a two-for-two mark into his stakes and two-turn bow for Todd Pletcher, and proven router Harvey Wallbanger was second to future Champagne (G1) scorer Complexity and Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) third Plus Que Parfait in a couple of his maiden races.
  2. Maximus Mischief faces a more challenging pace scenario, with a new rider in Jose Ortiz, than in the Remsen. Outside-drawn speedsters Gladiator King and Going for Gold figure to gun it in hopes of crossing over for early position in the 1 1/16-mile event. Come on Gerry, drawn just inside of Maximus Mischief, likewise has speed. While Maximus Mischief can brush them aside as the high-class pace factor, he probably will have to work harder than he did at Aqueduct. Thus the race shape may help the chances of off-the-pace types. Mihos, whose sire Cairo Prince won the 2014 Holy Bull, fits that profile as he tries two turns for the first time. Florida-bred stakes veteran Garter and Tie, third in the Mucho Macho Man, is likely to appreciate the set-up too, along with deep-closing Harvey Wallbanger.
  3. The Remsen form will also be put to the test in the Withers over the same 1 1/8-mile trip at Aqueduct. Tax, the 2-1 morning-line favorite off a gallant third in the Remsen, is the only runner with stakes experience at the distance. Pletcher’s promising Moretti, a Medaglia d’Oro half-brother to Battle of Midway, adds blinkers in the wake of a green track-and-trip maiden score, while Admire captured a 1 1/8-mile maiden at Churchill Downs. Lucky Lee, proven around two turns after a pair of mile routs at Parx, steps up in class too. The rest have stakes form but with questions to answer. Jerome runner-up Our Braintrust is an unknown beyond one turn. So is Not That Brady, who has the added variable of venturing outside New York-bred company. Sir Winston, winner of the Display on Woodbine’s synthetic, must show he’s as effective on dirt.
  4. The Robert B. Lewis showdown between Mucho Gusto and Gunmetal Gray, respectively 8-5 and 9-5 on the morning line, could be interpreted as a proxy war. Both have finished second in Grade 1s to a Bob Baffert beast on the Derby trail. Mucho Gusto was overwhelmed by stablemate Improbable in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) last out, and Jerry Hollendorfer’s Gunmetal Gray was best of the rest behind champion Game Winner in last fall’s American Pharoah (G1). Until Game Winner and Improbable go head-to-head themselves, we’re left with reading the tea leaves from their vanquished rivals. Of course, the Lewis result won’t furnish a proper answer to the Game Winner versus Improbable debate. Yet if Mucho Gusto easily repels Gunmetal Gray, Improbable gets a serious form boost.
  5. Gunmetal Gray profited from a pace collapse when earning his stakes breakthrough in the Sham (G3) last time out. Granted that the game plan wasn’t to be that far back, but it’s the second race in a row he’s fallen further behind early. He’ll need to secure better tactical position in a Lewis that promises to pan out differently. Mucho Gusto doesn’t throw in the towel up front, and a likely off track should help to carry the speed in any event. The most attractive of the stakes firsters, Nolo Contesto, projects a favorable stalking trip. By Pioneerof the Nile, the 2009 Lewis winner and sire of American Pharoah, Nolo Contesto stayed on stoutly at the end of his mile maiden as though wanting more ground. Magnificent McCool finally broke his maiden over nine furlongs on turf, in his sixth try, and the underachieving blueblood could be figuring things out.
PHOTO: Maximus Mischief and Tax (center) in the Remsen (c) NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography