Dale Romans was talking about his horse, Giant Game. But he spoke for all his fellow trainers in Saturday’s Grade 3 Holy Bull when he distilled the meaning of this Kentucky Derby prep.

Mo Donegal-Holy Bull
Mo Donegal already owns a two-turn victory. He goes for his second graded stakes victory as the 3/1 morning line favorite in the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park Saturday. (Image: Chelsea Durand/NYRA Photo)

“Like we say every year, this is the time for the 2-year-olds to turn into men and grow up,” Romans said.

The Holy Bull, which headlines Gulfstream Park’s 12-race Saturday card and the four other Grade 3s on it, sends its nine sophomores 1 1/16 miles. At stake are 10-4-2-1 Derby points to the top four finishers and a head of steam going into the next Gulfstream Derby Prep: the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth March 4.

To steal from Romans, the Holy Bull does make its 2-year-olds “grow up.” It often sends Derby prospects to Churchill Downs, including Holy Bull winners Mohaymen (2016), Irish War Cry (2017), Audible (2018) and Tiz the Law (2020). But it hasn’t sent one to the Derby winner’s circle since the late Barbaro in 2006. Go for Gin in 1994 is the only other Holy Bull winner to capture the Derby.

Unsurprisingly, a Pletcher is the Holy Bull focus

Speaking of Audible, he came from the same Todd Pletcher barn that produces this year’s Holy Bull favorite: 3/1 morning-line darling Mo Donegal. There’s good reason Mo Donegal will take plenty of money Saturday, other than the fact favorites typically hit the board here. All you have to do is watch his gritty victory in December’s Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct.

That victory by a nose over a charging Zandon came over two turns at 1 1/8 miles, removing any questions the son of Uncle Mo can handle either the turns or the distance. Need more ammo? Irad Ortiz Jr. takes the reins, bringing a 29% winning percentage this meet along for the ride.

Pletcher said he put the Holy Bull on Mo Donegal’s schedule the moment he got out of the Aqueduct winner’s circle after his Remsen triumph.

“It gives us plenty of options,” Pletcher said. “If he were to run well, we still have the 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.”

Giant Game has plenty of game

Bettors in this race have plenty of options other than the stalking Mo Donegal, starting with Romans’ Giant Game (7/2). All the son of Giant’s Causeway did in his stakes debut was finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, going four-wide and charging into the mix.

That Giant Game was even in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile mix is a testament to Romans’ combination of faith and audacity. He sent the stalker/closer to Del Mar after Giant Game won a maiden special weight at Keeneland. If there is a front-end speed duel here, Giant Game will be in excellent shape to pick up the pieces — along with his first stakes score.

“I put my neck on the line there, coming off a maiden race at Keeneland,” Romans said. “But when you have a horse with his pedigree, looks like him, acts like him and runs like he did, you expect him to perform at the highest level. So you put them in the highest-level races.”

Tiz the Bomb could detonate on dirt

This explains one reason why Kenny McPeek sent Tiz the Bomb (6/1) to Del Mar, where he finished a solid second to Modern Games in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. That followed back-of-the-pack rallies for victories in both the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Mile and the Grade 2 Bourbon Stakes.

Both those races also came on grass, which brings a Holy Bull caveat along for the ride. Tiz the Bomb is clearly the fastest horse in the field. His 109 Equibase Speed Figure from the Breeders’ Cup is 10 points faster than the next-best figure — Simplification’s 99. And yes, he won an off-the-turf maiden race at Ellis Park by 14 1/2 lengths. Can that obvious speed transfer successfully to dirt?

“There are limited opportunities for 3-year-old grass horses in North America,” McPeek said. “He’s a really talented horse and we don’t want to lock him in as strictly a grass horse. There’s no sense pigeonholing him as a grass horse. Even last year, we could have made a case for keeping him on dirt, but I chose to keep him separated from some of my other colts. At this stage, we’re going to give him the opportunity to play on the dirt.”

Keeping things simple with early speed

As for Simplification (4/1), say “hello” to your early speed as you say hello to a colt who tries two turns for the first time. If the four-length winner of last month’s Mucho Macho Man gets little or no front-end pressure from his rivals, he could be saying “good-bye” to the rest of this field.

Grade 3 Holy Bull/Gulfstream Park

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Galt, 15/1 (Junior Alvarado/Bill Mott)
  2. Mo Donegal, 3/1 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Todd Pletcher)
  3. Eloquist, 20/1 (Frankie Pennington/Robert Reid Jr.)
  4. Simplification, 4/1 (Javier Castellano/Antonio Sano)
  5. Cajun’s Magic, 8/1 (Jesus Rios/Michael Yates)
  6. Tiz the Bomb, 6/1 (Brian Hernandez Jr./Kenny McPeek)
  7. Spin Wheel, 20/1 (Julien Leparoux/Rusty Arnold)
  8. White Abarrio, 6/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Saffie Joseph Jr.)
  9. Giant Game, 7/2 (Luis Saez/Dale Romans)

“I think that more distance is better for my horse,” trainer Antonio Sano said. “I gave him open gallops to make him strong for the Mucho Macho Man, and after the Mucho Macho Man, I continued to do the same thing.”