The Road to the Kentucky Derby heats up this weekend with three key prep races on tap across the country.
Donegal Racing’s Mo Donegal is poised to make his 2022 debut in the $250,000 Holy Bull (G3) Saturday at Gulfstream Park, and his Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher has opted for no soft spot for the son of Uncle Mo’s highly anticipated return to action.
The 33rd running of the Holy Bull, the first graded-stakes on the Road to the Florida Derby (G1), headlines a 12-race program that will also feature the $100,000 Claiborne Swale (G3), $100,000 Forward Gal (G3), $100,000 Kitten’s Joy (G3) and $100,000 Sweetest Chant (G3).
Although Mo Donegal, 3-1 on the morning line, will be put to the test in a field that includes two Grade 1 stakes-placed opponents, the Pletcher-trained colt has already passed the most rigorous test for all Triple Crown prospects – the two-turn test over 1 1/8-miles. The $250,000 purchase at the 2020 Keeneland September yearling sale enters the Holy Bull off a gutsy triumph in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct Dec. 4.
“We were pretty focused on the Remsen right after he broke his maiden. We locked in on that and after the race I got with [Donegal Racing’s] Jerry Crawford, and we talked about how we could go about getting on the Derby trail. We decided that the Holy Bull was the right starting point,” said Pletcher, who saddled Audible (2019) and Algorithms (2012) for Holy Bull victors. “It gives us plenty of options. If he were to run well, we still have the (March 4) Fountain of Youth to come back in if we wanted to or we could train up to the Florida Derby like we did with Audible. We kind of felt like it put us in a position to have the most options.”
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Mo Donegal Wins Remsen
Mo Donegal finished third in his Sept. 30 debut at Belmont, in which he broke slowly and was subsequently steadied in traffic. He came right back to graduate at 1 1/16-miles despite breaking a step slowly a month later. In the Remsen, Mo Donegal encountered bumping at the start, moved to the lead heading into the stretch, and battled with Zandon to the wire to eke out a triumph by a nose.
“I’m really pleased with his training since he came here after the Remsen. We targeted this right away and, knock on wood, thankfully everything has gone according to schedule,” Pletcher said. “He has not missed a beat since he’s been here.”
Mo Donegal’s Pletcher-trained sire, who captured the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, was 1-for-1 at Gulfstream, where he dominated the Timely Writer Stakes in his 3-year-old debut in March 2011. He takes after Uncle Mo in the looks department.
“Uncle Mo stamps his offspring probably more so than any stallion in the country. He looks like a lot of them do. He’s got the same build. He’s a good-sized colt,” Pletcher said. “He’s had a bit of a growth spurt and he’s done what you’d like to see 2-year-olds turning 3 and young 3-year-olds this time of year do, growing and physically developing.”
Irad Ortiz Jr. has the return mount aboard Mo Donegal, whose opponents will include Kenny McPeek-trained Tiz the Bomb, runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) at Del Mar, and Dale Romans-trained Giant Game, third-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
Eleven Go in Withers at Aqueduct
The Road to the Kentucky Derby will go through New York when a field of 11 sophomores assemble for Saturday’s 148th running of the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The nine-furlong Withers is a qualifying event for the Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs, offering 10-4-2-1 points to the top-four finishers in the two-turn test.
Courvoisier will look to build on a 10-point triumph last out in the Jerome on New Year’s Day at Aqueduct. The regally-bred son of Tapit, out of 2014 Champion 2-Year-Old Filly Take Charge Brandi, secured outside stalking position in the one-turn mile Jerome and matched strides with pacesetter Hagler around the far turn before pulling away to a 1 1/4-length triumph over the sloppy and sealed main track.
Courvoisier, currently 12th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, boasts winning experience at the Withers distance having graduated at 14-1 odds on December 2 in his first start at the Big A.
Trainer Kelly Breen said the sizable Courvoisier, who is owned by Hill ‘n’ Dale Equine Holdings and James Spry, will appreciate a return to two turns.
“He’s always been a big boy. He was a big boy at birth and he’s filling in,” Breen said. “He’s a nice horse and I think that the longer the better for him. We have high hopes for him – let him show it on the track.”
Courvoisier will attempt to add his name to a list of a dozen horses that have captured both the Jerome and the Withers, including Hall of Famers Housebuster , Hill Prince  and Duke of Magenta .
Ruben Silvera will pilot Courvoisier for the first time, breaking from post 5.
Looking to contest Courvoisier once more are Jerome second, third, fourth and sixth-place finishers Smarten Up, Cooke Creek, Unbridled Bomber and Mr Jefferson.
Trained by Alfredo Velazquez, the consistent Smarten Up was twice placed at maiden level before a nine-length romp on November 22 at Parx Racing. The son of American Freedom made his first venture away from Parx in the Jerome, launching a late turn-of-foot to finish second at 21-1 odds.
Smarten Up will be ridden by returning pilot Anthony Salgado from post 3.
Cheyenne Stable’s Cooke Creek, a son of Uncle Mo trained by Jeremiah O’Dwyer, was in pursuit from the four path in upper stretch in the Jerome, but was passed up by Smarten Up’s late kick, finishing two lengths behind Courvoisier.
Baffert Sends Out Duo in Lewis
Second at 1-2 in his most recent stakes assignment, Messier will be out to make amends and stamp himself an “A-List” Derby hopeful as he heads a field of five sophomores going a mile and one sixteenth in Sunday’s Grade III, $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.
An important prep on the road to both the Santa Anita and Kentucky Derbies, the Lewis will provide the winner with 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points and the second, third and fourth place finishers with four, two and one point respectively.
A chestnut colt by Empire Maker, Messier, an impressive six furlong maiden winner here three starts back on Oct. 22, then galloped to a 3 ½ length score going seven furlongs in the Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar on Nov. 14. Subsequently dispatched at 1-2 in the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity at a mile and one sixteenth, he appeared to have the race won three sixteenths of a mile out, but the Doug O’Neill-trained Slow Down Andy, although racing erratically, came back on to Messier’s outside to register a one length win.
Although beaten in his first two turn assignment, Messier, who has been favored in all four of his starts, appeared undaunted, as he galloped out strongly and in front around the Clubhouse turn at Los Alamitos. Trained by Bob Baffert and owned by SF Racing, LLC, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables LLC, et al, Messier is well seasoned, with two wins and as many seconds from four starts. Ridden by Flavien Prat in his last three starts, he’ll be handled for the first time by John Velazquez in the Lewis.
Messier’s primary rival certainly appears to be the Simon Callaghan-trained Sir London, who crushed four rivals in breaking his maiden by 10 lengths as the 1-5 favorite on Dec. 4 at Los Alamitos. Second in a pair of maiden sprints on Oct. 3 at Santa Anita and Nov. 13 at Del Mar, Sir London led every step of the way in breaking his maiden at a flat mile Dec. 4 and seems very well spotted in Saturday’s Lewis as he retains the services of Flavien Prat.