Saturday's $350,000 Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park has been eagerly anticipated for weeks as it will mark the sophomore debut of juvenile champion and early Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite Classic Empire.
Winner of the Bashford Manor (G3) at Churchill Downs last spring, Classic Empire showed a new dimension adding blinkers in the fall. A three-length winner of the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, the Pioneerof the Nile colt clinched championship honors with his brave, neck victory over the now-retired Not This Time in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita.
Classic Empire is certainly not expected to be at peak strength for the Holy Bull. That in itself doesn't mean he's especially vulnerable -- he'll likely be a legitimate odds-on choice -- but if there's ever time to catch the champion at a low point on the Derby trail, the Holy Bull might be the opposition's best opportunity.
The leading opponent in the Holy Bull is Gunnevera, who captured last year's Saratoga Special (G2) and Delta Downs Jackpot (G3). He closed at odds of 22-1 and 24-1, respectively, in the first two pools of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW).
The Jackpot was easily Gunnevera's most impressive race. Last of 10 after a quarter-mile in :23 and a half-mile in :47, the Dialed In colt made a sweeping move into contention on the turn and drew away to win by 5 3/4 lengths. Javier Castellano was aboard Gunnevera for both of his graded wins.
The issue with Gunnevera's Holy Bull candidacy is that he's already felt the wrath of Classic Empire, in the Breeders' Futurity, and proved not up to the task. It wasn't an awful defeat -- he finished fifth, beaten 6 3/4 lengths -- but that's still a significant margin to overturn. Gunnevera earned a lifetime best 96 Brisnet Speed Rating for his score at Delta Downs, but Classic Empire had earned a monster 108 rating winning the Breeders' Cup two weeks earlier.
Classic Empire has positional speed and, depending how the race shapes up, may discover that his optimal path to victory will be to seize control early and slow it down. Gunnevera has shown little speed to date and will be dependent to a degree on getting "help" on the front end, something that might not materialize.
The Holy Bull is just the first step on the road to the 2017 Derby for both colts, and for Gunnevera another loss to Classic Empire is not going to derail his classic prospects. A second-place finish in the Holy Bull will be worth four points eligibility points, which would bring his total to 14.
On the other hand, without considerable progress in closing the gap between he and Classic Empire on Saturday, it might suit Gunnevera to try and earn more eligibility points for the Derby elsewhere. Far away from Classic Empire.