Cairo Prince and Top Billing enhanced their Kentucky Derby prospects with outstanding performances at Gulfstream Park over the weekend. The convincing victories came at least as a small surprise given the competition: Cairo Prince pounded a well-regarded group of rivals in the Grade 2 Holy Bull and Top Billing rolled home under a hand ride in a deep optional claiming event.
The next start from both is eagerly anticipated.
A single scoring race will be offered this coming weekend, Saturday's Withers at Aqueduct. Only six horses, and no open stakes winners, will contest the 1 1/16-mile event on the inner track.
Cairo Prince flashed talent from the get-go last fall, following an easy debut score at six furlongs with a 2 1/2-length victory in the one-mile Nashua, and concluded his juvenile campaign with a nose second to Honor Code in the Grade 2 Remsen at 1 1/8 miles.
The Remsen is a difficult race to appreciate given the ridiculous early fractions, but Cairo Prince ran to form that afternoon while giving six pounds to the highly-rated winner and entered his three-year-old season as a top contender for the Kentucky Derby.
Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, he is from the first cop of Pioneerof the Nile, who figures to be a stamina influence given his pedigree and constitution -- the multiple Grade 1-winning son of Empire Maker never raced at a distance less than 1 1/16 miles in 10 career starts.
Cairo Prince posted a pair of five-furlong bullet works at Palm Meadows in advance of the Holy Bull and was hammered down to nearly odds-on during the early betting, eventually leaving the starting gate as the 2-1 choice among 11 rivals. He rated kindly just off the early pace beneath Luis Saez, stalking contested fractions of :23 3/5 and :46 3/5, and left no doubt when asked for run leaving the far turn, quickly striking the front and drawing clear. Cairo Prince reached the mile mark with a two-length cushion and continued to widen the advantage in the final sixteenth of a mile, winning by 5 3/4 lengths.
You could've thrown a blanket around the next group of runners far behind.
Conquest Titan went widest of all off the far turn while rallying nicely for second, a half-length better than Intense Holiday, who also overcame a wide trip and closed well for part. Almost Famous and Best Plan Yet were less than a length back of that rival in fourth and fifth, respectively.
Almost Famous was the only one contesting the early pace that didn't back up significantly late.
The Holy Bull shaped up to be a competitive affair and I wouldn't necessarily give up on any of the also-rans, there is plenty of time left for further development. But Cairo Prince was seemingly in a different area code at this stage, a talented individual with a bright future.
He earned a career-best 100 BRIS Speed rating.
"Obviously, we're holding a strong hand with this colt," McLaughlin said afterward. "We feel very confident moving forward."
Cairo Prince spotted at least two pounds to every rival in the Holy Bull as the 122-pound highweight.
McLaughlin, who finished second in the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Closing Argument and fourth in the 2006 with Jazil, was still gushing the following morning.
"There's no question he's the best one," McLaughlin said when asked to compare Cairo Price. "We haven't been in this position before, ever. The most important thing is he doesn't have to improve.
"He doesn't have to do anything but stay the way he is, and that's all we hope for is for him to stay healthy and happy."
McLaughlin said he would consider the Fountain of Youth on February 22 but could elect to train Cairo Prince up to the Florida Derby on March 29.
On the Holy Bull undercard, Top Billing continued to impress while posting a 2 3/4-length decision in a 1 1/16-mile optional claiming event. It was a monstrous effort given the way the race played out -- Surfing USA was cruising on the front end after a half-mile in :47 1/5 and Top Billing was rating about 10 lengths behind in last.
He uncorked his rally on the far turn, circling rivals to reach contention by the top of the stretch, and blew past the pacesetter like he was standing still.
Surfing USA was exiting a sharp seven-furlong maiden win for Todd Pletcher as the odds-on favorite and wound up a clear second on Saturday.
Top Billing stamped himself as a Kentucky Derby hopeful when finishing a neck second to Commissioner in his 2014 bow, a 1 1/8-mile optional claiming event at Gulfstream January 3, and showed another dimension on Saturday.
Joel Rosario appeared to hardly move a muscle aboard the strong finisher, who has netted century-topping Late Pace ratings in all three career starts. The chestnut son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin captured his career bow at Laurel Park December 6 and received a 95 Speed rating on Saturday.
He's in good hands with Shug McGaughey, who showed his skills when earning his first Kentucky Derby victory last year with Orb. It was a masterful training job given that Orb earned only an 89 Speed rating when opening his three-year-old season at Gulfstream last January and never won again after the first Saturday in May.
Top Billing looks more advanced at this point in his career and could be any kind going forward.
"That was pretty impressive," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "I was watching on the TV and all I could see was his number; the 2 was back there where I didn't want him to be. He's learning.
"I thought this was a powerful race today. He ate the dirt today even though Joel (Rosario) took him out away from it. He told me that wasn't going to be a problem in the future. I just thought he ran an awful good race today."
Top Billing is a half-brother to Untouched Talent, the dam of 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister, and he could make his next start in the Fountain of Youth on February 22.
Honor Code/Shared Belief
Foot problems are presently dogging a couple of top contenders, Honor Code and Shared Belief.
McGaughey announced Wednesday (January 29) that Honor Code had sustained a setback, forcing him to miss some training time, but is still hopeful that the Remsen winner can make a couple of preps in advance of the Kentucky Derby. But his first scheduled race, the Fountain of Youth, is likely out.
Honor Code has posted only one work this year, breezing three furlongs at Payson Park January 18.
"He bruised up his back ankles a little bit. I think he'll be fine," McGaughey said. "I wasn't sure about what was the matter with him. Now I think we have it pinpointed.
"He'll go back to the track on Friday."
Champion two-year-old Shared Belief developed a foot abscess after his last published work on January 3, but he was scheduled to return to the worktab last Friday (January 24). That didn't happen and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer is offering no explanations.
"There is no update," Hollendorfer said when asked about the gelding's status.
Shared Belief was scheduled to make his 2014 bow in the Robert B. Lewis on February 8, but that race now appears out of the question.
"I don't have any news for the next 15 days," Hollendorfer said 15 days out from the Lewis.
Foot problems are never a good thing for Kentucky Derby contenders, but all hope isn't lost for supporters of Honor Code and Shared Belief.
The best example is Big Brown, who didn't work from December 28 to February 24 due to quarter-crack issues. He was able to make two starts in March before a tour-de-force victory at Churchill Downs in 2008.
Of course, Big Brown simply overpowered the competition with his natural ability and is more of an exception than the norm.
Kentucky Derby Top 10