Jon White: Holy Bull, Southwest, Robert B. Lewis, Withers Picks

Eclipse Award winner Fierceness, who ranks No 1 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10, heads a field of eight entered in Gulfstream Park’s Grade III Holy Bull Stakes on Saturday (Feb. 3). The 1 1/16-mile affair is named in honor of the 1994 Horse of the Year and 2001 Hall of Fame inductee.

Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher trains Fierceness. Pletcher also conditions Born Noble, who is No. 2 on my Top 10.

Born Noble also is slated to compete Saturday at Gulfstream. No, he’s not in the Holy Bull. Born Noble is entered in the sixth race, an allowance/optional claimer at one mile.

I elevated Born Noble to No. 2 last week in part because of his five-furlong team drill with Fierceness on Jan. 20 at Florida’s Palm Beach Downs. The two colts were timed in an identical :59.48.

You can watch that Jan. 20 workout on XBTV.

Yes, Born Noble was clocked in the exact same time as dominant Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Fierceness. In addition to being No. 1 on my Top 10, Fierceness also tops such other Kentucky Derby rankings as those by Bloodhorse’s Byron King, Countdown to the Crown’s Jeremy Plonk and’s Steve Haskin.

NBC showed that Jan. 20 workout during its Pegasus World Cup telecast last Saturday (Jan. 20). Fierceness was identified graphically, while his workmate, Born Noble, was not. You might say Born Noble was like the 1972 song by America, “A Horse with No Name.” And while Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey talked about Fierceness, not a word was said about Born Noble, even though the unidentified Born Noble was running evenly with Fierceness.

Fierceness and Born Noble “both flew around there in a rapid :59 2/5 for the five furlongs,” Steve Haskin wrote this week regarding that Jan. 20 workout. “Running eyeball to eyeball with the champ and going just as easily, [Born Noble] went toe to toe with him to the wire and then matched strides with him past the wire and into the turn.”

That excellent Jan. 20 workout by Born Noble did not escape Haskin’s attention, unlike NBC.

Born Noble won a seven-furlong maiden contest when unveiled at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 30. On a wet track listed as good, the Kentucky-bred Constitution colt raced greenly in the stretch, yet still managed to draw away late without being urged to do so by Irad Ortiz Jr. to do so. Born Noble prevailed by 5 1/2 lengths. He recorded a 93 Beyer, a figure that compares favorably with Fierceness’ in his victorious career debut last summer.

When Fierceness kicked off his racing career by winning a six-furlong maiden race by 11 1/4 lengths on a muddy track at Saratoga last summer, he recorded a 95 Beyer.

Pletcher indicated Monday (Jan. 29) on Steve Byk’s SiriuxXM radio program At the Races that a good performance by Born Noble in Saturday’s allowance race might be followed by a start in Gulfstream’s Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on March 2.

As for the Holy Bull, the field from the rail out consists of Hades, Inveigled, Otello, Dancing Groom, No More Time, Domestic Product, Fiercenss and Sea Streak.

Below are my selections for the Holy Bull Stakes:

1. Fierceness
2. Otello
3. Hades
4. Sea Streak

Fierceness looks formidable. He was voted a 2023 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. The Holy Bull will be his first start since the BC Juvenile, which the Repole Stable-owned colt won by 6 1/4 lengths. He came away with a 105 Beyer Speed Figure.

When Fierceness posted a 105 Beyer in his final start at 2, it was the highest figure by a BC Juvenile winner since the 108 by Uncle Mo all the way back in 2010. Uncle Mo, like Fierceness, was owned by Repole and trained by Pletcher.

Uncle Mo, also like Fierceness, was voted an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.

In the 40-year history of the BC Juvenile, only five winners have received a bigger Beyer than Fierceness’ 105.

Below are the Beyers of 100 and higher by BC Juvenile winners:

113 War Pass (2007)
109 Success Express (1987)
108 Uncle Mo (2010)
108 Street Sense (2006)
106 Chief’s Crown (1984)
105 Fierceness (2023)
104 Texas Red (2014)
104 Stevie Wonderboy (2005)
103 Boston Harbor (1996)
103 Unbridled’s Song (1995)
102 Classic Empire (2016)
102 Vindication (2002)
102 Anees (1999)
102 Is It True (1988)
101 Favorite Trick (1997)
101 Arazi (1991)
101 Fly So Free (1990)
100 Forte (2022)
100 Good Magic (2017)
100 Timber Country (1994)

All indications are that Fierceness will not need to go anywhere close to back into triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure territory in order to win Holy Bull. Even the 95 Beyer that the Kentucky-bred City of Light colt recorded in his maiden score is better much better than any figure seen so far from his Holy Bull opponents.

Below is the top Beyer achieved by each Holy Bull entrant:

105 Fierceness
 86 Sea Streak
 84 Hades
 83 Inveigled
 80 Otello
 78 No More Time
 75 Dancing Groom
 75 Domestic Product


A dozen are scheduled to face the starter in this Saturday’s grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

From the rail out, the lineup for the 1 1/16-mile Southwest is made up of Maycocks Bay, Charleston, Magic Grant, Otto the Conqueror, Wynstock, Liberal Arts, Carbone, Common Defense, Linebacker, Mystik Dan, Just Steel and Awesome Road.

I landed on Carbone. Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, the Kentucky-bred Mitole colt is undefeated in two career starts.

In his career debut, Carbone showed early zip and drew off to an eight-length victory in a six-furlong maiden sprint at Churchill Downs last Nov. 19. That was followed by a front-running four-length win in a one-mile allowance/optional claimer at Oaklawn on Dec. 31.

Carbone was 5-2 at first asking, then 3-5 on Dec. 31. He is 9-2 on the Southwest morning line. As the morning line oddsmaker at Santa Anita and Del Mar, I take absolutely no pleasure in knocking someone else’s morning line. But I have to be honest. I will be shocked if Carbone is not much lower than 9-2 at race time Saturday following his two decisive victories.

Below are my selections for the Southwest:

1. Carbone
2. Wynstock
3. Maycocks Bay
4. Sea Streak


Nysos appears to tower over the field in Saturday’s Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, much like Fierceness in the Holy Bull.

As recently as two weeks ago, I had Fierceness ranked No. 1 and Nysos at No. 2 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10. But with Nysos remaining in Hall of Fame trainer Baffert’s barn rather than being transferred to another trainer, there won’t be a Run for the Roses for him, unlike his sire, Nyquist, who won the 2016 Kentucky Derby.

From the rail out, the field of nine in Saturday’s one-mile Lewis is comprised of Wine Me Up, Ace of Clubs, Better Than Gold, Moonlit Sonata, Coach Prime, Nysos, Stronghold, Mc Vay and Scatify.

Nysos has looked like a potential superstar in his first two career starts.

I made Nysos the 3-1 morning-line favorite when the Kentucky-bred colt started in an extremely tough six-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita on Oct. 21. It turned out that the betting choice at race time was E J Won the Cup, trained by Doug O’Neill. Two other Baffert-trained debut runners, Urban Legend and British Isles, were each sent off at 3-1. Nysos? His odds were 6-1 when he exited the starting gate.

Nysos made 6-1 look like the overlay of the year. Showing early foot, he shook clear in upper stretch and ran up the score to win by 10 1/2 lengths in a fast 1:08.97. He recorded a 96 Beyer Speed Figure. Urban Legend ran second. E J Won the Cup came in fifth. British Isles finished sixth.

In Del Mar’s Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at seven furlongs on Nov. 19, Nysos proved that his stellar maiden performance was not a fluke. He won by 8 3/4 lengths and again registered a marvelous final clocking of 1:21.71.

It looks like Nysos has trained in splendid fashion while gearing up for his first 2024 start this Saturday, which suggests that he will be mighty tough to beat.

Below are my selections for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes:

1. Nysos
2. Stronghold
3. Coach Prime
4. Better Than Gold


Nine are scheduled to clash at 1 1/8 miles in Saturday’s Grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct.

The Withers does not appear to be nearly as strong as the Holy Bull, Southwest or Robert B. Lewis.

From the rail out, the Withers cast consists of Speed Runner, Deposition, Lightline, El Grande O, Seminole Chief, Society Man, Mission Beach, Uncle Heavy and Khanate.

Though Lightline is a far cry from the great Flightline, the Brad Cox-trained Kentucky-bred City of Light colt is my top choice in the Withers.

In all likelihood, Cox would have had the heavy Withers favorite in Drum Roll Please if the Hard Spun colt had not recently sustained an injury.

Drum Roll Please won the Jerome by 3 3/4 lengths at the Big A on Jan. 6. He had a four-furlong workout in :49.55 at Belmont Park on Jan. 19. Owner Al Gold told the Daily Racing Form that after Drum Roll Please’s breeze, the Hard Spun colt “was off in a hind leg and X-rays showed an apical medial sesamoid fracture of his left hind ankle,” an injury that would require surgery.

Cox still might have the Withers favorite with Lightline, who has raced three times thus far.

Lightline romped to a 13 3/4-length win in a one-mile maiden race at Horseshoe Indianapolis when making his career debut last Sept. 14. On Oct. 14, he ran second in a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claimer at Keeneland.

The Withers will be Lightline’s first start since he finished second to the speedy Carbone in a one-mile allowance/optional claimer at Oaklawn Park on Dec. 31.

As noted earlier, Carbone is my top pick in Saturday’s Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn.

“I’m happy with what we’ve seen from him to start his career,” Cox was quoted as saying in NYRA’s Withers preview. “He ran a good race a Oaklawn last time and maybe got a little far back. It’s a short stretch in a mile race. He kind of didn’t get as involved as we thought. But at the end of the day, I thought he got a lot out of it and it sets him up well for the Withers.

“He’s a real good-looking physical, great-looking horse. He was an expensive [$600,000] yearling and he’s a steady work horse. I think he’s a horse that’s going to really take to a mile and eighth or a mile and a quarter.”

Below are my selections for the Withers Stakes:

1. Lightline
2. El Grande O
3. Speed Runner
4. Mission Beach


There was big Kentucky Derby news this week.

Monday (Jan. 29) was the deadline imposed by Churchill Downs for horses to be switched from Baffert to another trainer in order for them to become eligible to earn qualifying points toward the 150th running of the $5 million Kentucky Derby on May 4.

According to various news reports, no 3-year-old trained by Baffert has been transferred to become eligible to earn Kentucky Derby points. In the last two years, some owners did move their horses to an eligible trainer, mostly to Baffert’s former assistant Tim Yakteen.

The Los Angeles Times had this poorly worded headline for this story: Still banned, Baffert elects to not run horses at Derby

No, it is not Baffert “electing” to not run his horses in the Kentucky Derby, but rather it’s his owners’ decision.

The Daily Racing Form headline got it right: Kentucky Derby: Baffert owners take a stand; don’t transfer horses by deadline

The Jan. 29 deadline stemmed from Baffert still being under suspension by Churchill Downs Incorporated. Baffert’s ban by CDI followed Medina Spirit’s disqualification from his win in the 2021 Kentucky Derby after he tested positive for the presence of betamethasone, a medication that was legal to use, but not on race day.

After the Medina Spirit disqualification, Baffert was suspended from participating at CDI-owned tracks in 2022 and 2023, effectively keeping the trainer out of the Kentucky Derby.

And then this past July 3, Churchill Downs moved the goal posts. It announced it was “extending the suspension of Bob Baffert through calendar year 2024 based on continued concerns regarding the threat to the safety and integrity he poses to CDI-owned racetracks.”

This year on Jan. 12, Churchill Downs announced that “horses under the care of any trainer suspended from competing in the 2024 Kentucky Derby or 2024 Kentucky Oaks must be transferred to a non-suspended trainer by Jan. 29 to become eligible for the applicable race. Horses under the care of a suspended trainer will become eligible to earn qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby or Road to the Kentucky Oaks on a forward-looking basis after the transfer is complete so long as the transfer is complete by the Jan. 29 deadline.”

On Jan. 22, Baffert announced via the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) that he and owner Zedan Racing were dropping their appeal of a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission ruling to disqualify Medina Spirit from his victory in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

That dropping of the appeal led to speculation that Churchill Downs might lift its suspension of Baffert.

However, just one day later on Jan. 23, “Churchill Downs said in a new statement in response to an inquiry by Daily Racing Form that ‘yesterday’s dismissal of appeal does not change the current [ban] or deadline to transfer horses’ for this year’s [Kentucky] Derby,” the DRF’s Matt Hegarty wrote.

“Under Churchill’s ban, any horse that is in Baffert’s barn past Jan. 29 is ineligible to enter the Derby this year,” Hegarty added.

I agree with what Andy Beyer said Tuesday (Jan. 29) on Byk’s radio program. Beyer said that Baffert got “a raw deal” when Churchill Downs extended the trainer’s suspension through 2024.

“It just feels that Churchill Downs has a vendetta against him,” Beyer said.

Churchill Downs’ original two-year suspension of Baffert was a whole lot more than a slap on the wrist. I’d say it was a severe penalty. And during Baffert’s entire original two-year suspension meted out by Churchill, I’m not aware of Baffert having a single medication violation anywhere in the world.

I realize that Churchill Downs owns the Kentucky Derby and therefore evidently can do whatever they want. But what Churchill did by extending Baffert’s original suspension, I believe, flies in the face of fundamental fairness. I think Churchill Downs’ decision to extend Baffert’s ban to a third year was unwarranted due to Baffert’s clean record during 2022 and 2023.

Despite Baffert’s clean record in 2022 and 2023, his owners this year again were put in the position of having to choose between Baffert and the Kentucky Derby. If an owner decided to keep a horse with Baffert this year, as they all reportedly have done, it meant that they were doing so at the expense of possibly running the horse in the Kentucky Derby.

“The non-moves show the intensity of the loyalty that his owners have for the Hall of Famer,” John Cherwa wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

In a DRF article Tuesday (Jan. 30), David Grening wrote in part: “Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby a record-equaling six times, confirmed that his owners nominated 18 horses to this year’s Triple Crown, but declined to comment further.”

While those 18 horses won’t be able to run in the Kentucky Derby, they can still compete in the Grade I Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 18 and the Grade I Belmont Stakes at Saratoga on June 8.

“The decision not to move those horses from Baffert was a sign of support by owners such as Amr Zedan, SF Racing and its partners, and Edward Allred and Jack Liebau, among others,” Grening wrote.

“We’re not moving, we have full trust in our trainer,” Zedan, who owned Medina Spirit, said to Grening. “Everything he has done has been in the best interests of our horses. He’s our man.

“Would we love to run in the [Kentucky] Derby? Absolutely, yes. Would we love to run, especially this being the 150th Derby? Absolutely, yes. Are we hoping to run in the Derby? Absolutely, yes. Do we think we will be there? It’s in God’s hands.”

Zedan said “we are hoping to run” in the Kentucky Derby, but by keeping his 3-year-olds with Baffert, at this point there seems to be almost no chance of that happening. Churchill Downs would have to do an about face. And I’d say there is a better chance that I will be elected president of the United States than Churchill Downs doing that.

According to Grening, Zedan’s horses nominated to the Triple Crown are BC Juvenile runner-up and recent Grade III San Vicente Stakes winner Muth; highly regarded 7 1/2-length maiden winner Maymun; Coach Prime, who ran third in the Grade III Los Alamitos Futurity and is entered in Saturday’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes; and the unraced colts Collmus and Taif.

I had an inkling Baffert’s owners might shun the Kentucky Derby this year and keep their horses with him. That’s why I took Nysos and Muth off my Kentucky Derby Top 10 last week.

I have removed the following seven Baffert-trained 3-year-olds from my “Bubbling Under My Top 10” list this week: Coach Prime, Imagination, Maymun, Muth, Nysos, Pilot Commander and Wynstock.

The Baffert situation had the effect of shaking up the Kentucky Derby future betting market this week at Caesars Sportsbook and Circa in Las Vegas, according’s Ron Flatter.

Paul Bach oversees Caesars’ future wagering for horse racing.

“Didn’t anticipate this,” Bach told Flatter. “That’s why I had to adjust the odds on 20 horses” after the announcement Monday that none of Baffert’s horses were being transferred.

Paul Zim, the racing oddsmaker at Circa (where I have a $100 future bet on Born Noble to win the Kentucky Derby at odds of 90-1, a wager made prior to the colt’s victorious debut), said that he did “get a sense there would be few if any horses transferred. Our pricing was mostly in line. I made small adjustments [Monday] when the news broke and we removed the Baffert horses.”

Flatter wrote that “the dropping of the Baffert horses created an early win for the bookmakers.”

It sure did. Think of it. All of the dollars wagered in Nevada on the Baffert-trained horses now will not have to be paid out. That’s right. Caesars and Circa get to keep ALL of that money. It is proof yet again that there is an inherent risk whenever one participates in Kentucky Derby future wagering. There are no refunds.

As for my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week, I have dropped Knightsbridge and Catching Freedom for the time being to make room on the list for Speak Easy and Victory Avenue, who debut this week at No. 9 and No. 10, respectively.

Speak Easy and Victory Avenue finished one-two in a salty seven-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream Park last Saturday (Jan. 27).

Victory Avenue was bet down to 3-2 favoritism, while Speak Easy was sent away at 8-1.

Speak Easy won by 1 3/4 lengths while completing his trip in a splendid 1:21.96. His robust 100 Beyer Speed Figure indicates that this is one serious Kentucky-bred Constitution colt.

I thought that even though Victory Avenue did not win, he exhibited considerable raw talent. He also seems to have a very bright future.

J. Keeler Johnson wrote the following with regard to Victory Avenue’s performance: “Despite a bit of an awkward start, the Gustavo Delgado trainee carved out the opening quarter-mile in :22.64, then ran his second quarter-mile in a blazing :21.97 to maintain his lead through a half-mile in :44.61.

“Victory Avenue weakened a bit down the homestretch,” Johnson continued, “but he was beaten by only 1 3/4 lengths while pulling 3 3/4 lengths clear of the third-place finisher. With this strong debut under his belt, Victory Avenue surely will be tough to beat in his second start.”

Delgado trained Mage, who won a Gulfstream maiden race on the Pegasus World Cup undercard a year ago before going on to Kentucky Derby glory. Mage recorded an 89 Beyer Speed Figure in his maiden debut triumph, while Victory Avenue was credited with a 97 Beyer for his runner-up effort.

Below is my current Kentucky Derby Top 10:

 1. Fierceness
 2. Born Noble
 3. Locked
 4. Sierra Leone
 5. Dornoch
 6. Hall of Fame
 7. Track Phantom
 8. Timberlake
 9. Speak Easy
10. Victory Avenue

Bubbling Under My Top 10: Book’ em Danno, Carbone, Change of Command, Conquest Warrior, Crimson Light, First World War, Honor Marie, Just a Touch, Liberal Arts, Lightline, Otello, Otto the Conqueror, Real Men Violin, Snead, Stretch Ride, The Wine Steward and Tuscan Sky.


The first editions of this year’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll and Top 3-Year-old Poll were revealed Monday.

The Top Thoroughbred Poll is indicative of who might be crowned a divisional champion and, moreover, Horse of the Year. Eligible journalists and broadcasters each week submit their Top 10 horses, with points awarded on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 points basis.

The 2023 Top Thoroughbred Poll concludes after the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar on Nov. 1-2.

Voting in the final Top 3-Year-Old Poll of 2023 will be released following the Grade I Belmont Stakes at Saratoga on June 8.

National Treasure, who as my top pick for won Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Pegasus World Cup by a neck last Saturday (Jan. 27), is No. 1 on the Top 10 in the first Top Thoroughbred Poll of 2024, which is listed below:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

 1. 236 National Treasure (13)
 2. 179 White Abarrio (10)
 3. 137 Senor Buscador
 4. 125 Idiomatic (2)
 5. 119 Saudi Crown
 6.   85 Warm Heart
 7.   84 Newgrange
 8.   75 Didia
 9.   44 Speed Boat Beach
10.   40 Arabian Knight

The Top 10 in the final NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll of 2023:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

 1. 326 Cody’s Wish (20)
 2. 307 White Abarrio (11)
 3. 258 Idiomatic (2)
 4. 257 Elite Power (1)
 5. 159 Up to the Mark (1)
 6. 121 Arcangelo
 7. 114 Goodnight Olive
 8.   84 Master of The Seas
 9.   70 Auguste Rodin
10.   31 Inspiral


Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

 1. 254 Fierceness (23)
 2. 168 Muth
 3. 163 Locked
 3. 163 Track Phantom (1)
 5. 101 Dornoch
 6.   90 Nysos (1)
 7.   75 Sierra Leone (1)
 8.   74 Timberlake
 9.   49 Catching Freedom
10.   38 Just F Y I

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