Saturday's Grade 2, $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes looked like a competitive Kentucky Derby prep on paper, but 2-1 favorite Cairo Prince turned it into a rout with an imperious, 5 3/4-length victory at Gulfstream Park. Last seen missing by a nose to Honor Code in the November 30 Remsen at Aqueduct -- his only career loss -- the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee was an apropos winner of this race, for he is out of a mare by Holy Bull.
"I love for the horse to make the statement," McLaughlin said, "but it's hard not to get excited when you have these kind. He just had a beautiful trip and he (jockey Luis Saez) asked him, he responded. He won carrying 122 (pounds), giving a lot of weight away."
Cairo Prince had been training sharply for his three-year-old debut, and the colt from the first crop of Pioneerof the Nile ran right up to his works. Breaking from post 7 with regular rider Saez, Cairo Prince took up an outside stalking spot, rating kindly just off the pace.
The rail-drawn Coup de Grace flashed his trademark speed, pressed by Almost Famous through fractions of :23 3/5 and :46 3/5 on the fast track. Mr Speaker, who was more forwardly placed than might have been expected in his dirt debut, attended the leaders in a close third.
When Coup de Grace began to backpedal and checked out of contention abruptly on the far turn, Almost Famous took up the baton and reached six furlongs in 1:10 1/5. Mr Speaker raced in tandem with the new leader, while Cairo Prince kicked into gear wider out.
As soon as Cairo Prince was given the cue, he readily pulled away to leave no doubt of his superiority. After clocking the mile in 1:35 2/5, the gray colt completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:42 and paid $6.20.
"He broke so well and the whole race I kept him in the clear," Saez recapped. "When we got to the half-mile pole, I know I have a lot of horse. When we got to the three-eighths pole, I knew I could win the race so when we came into the stretch I asked him and he responded. He just took off. I had so much horse. He's a nice horse.
"I felt like I was in control pretty much," the winning rider added. "I didn't have any trouble. I know everyone wanted to beat me so I kept him in the clear and when we came into the stretch I felt I was going to win the race.
"He's very special. He's one of the best horses I've ridden in my life. I have to say thanks for Kiaran McLaughlin and the owners for the chance to ride him."
Conquest Titan, last in the 11-horse field for the first half-mile, closed stoutly for runner-up honors. Intense Holiday, another deep closer, checked in another half-length back in third.
The connections of both placegetters were pleased in the circumstances.
"It was a nice run," Conquest Titan's trainer Mark Casse said. "We were happy with it. We had hoped to not be so far back, but going into the first turn, they sandwiched him, so Shaun (Bridgmohan) did the right thing and took him back. This is not the easiest place to come from out of it. We wanted to know if he fit with these horses and I think he proved that today. He has a special place he likes really well (Churchill Downs) and they run there on the first Saturday in May, so that's good. I'll have to talk to the owner, but we'll probably stay here."
"I thought he ran super," trainer Todd Pletcher said of Intense Holiday. "It was a tough post (11), but we were able to get a pretty good trip from there. He put in a really good middle move, and then I think he maybe hung a little bit, but he made up a lot of ground. The winner was very good today, but I'm pleased with his effort."
Almost Famous salvaged fourth from Best Plan Yet, and Financial Mogul, Mr Speaker, Our Caravan, Wicked Strong, Coup de Grace and the virtually-eased Big Bazinga rounded out the order of finish.
Coup de Grace's stakes debut didn't pan out the way that trainer Chad Brown hoped.
"He broke bad and then he rushed up," Brown said. "He just wasn't comfortable there, pulling; it just wasn't the trip I was looking for."
Owned by Namcook Stables, Paul Braverman, Harvey A. Clarke and W. Craig Robertson III, Cairo Prince earned 10 more points toward the Kentucky Derby, and including his 4 from the Remsen, he now has 14 to his credit. His career scorecard stands at 4-3-1-0, $512,000.
Cairo Prince showed plenty of dash to win his six-furlong debut at Aqueduct October 6, beating the promising Harpoon. Pitched straight into the November 3 Nashua at a one-turn mile, he made an eye-catching move to open up an insurmountable lead, and held Financial Mogul by a comfortable 2 1/2 lengths at the wire. Cairo Prince appeared ready to add the Remsen to his trophy case when rallying to the lead, only to lose the stretch battle to Honor Code.
A rematch with Honor Code could be on tap in the February 22 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream.
"We gave him six pounds (in the Remsen) and got beat a nose," McLaughlin pointed out. "We felt we were the best horse and we're marching on. There are plenty of good horses out there and we hope we can keep making it.
"Obviously, we'll look at the Fountain of Youth or we could wait until the Florida Derby (on March 29). We'll see how it goes. I hope he stays as good as he is today. He'll have one or two more (prep races).
"Obviously, we're holding a strong hand with this colt," McLaughlin continued. "We feel very confident moving forward. You just hope we keep going forward because things happen to horses all the time. We just want to keep him the same happy and healthy horse and keep going.
"He trains exceptionally well. He's got a great mind. A lot of times you don't get those two things in the same package. He does everything right and he is a neat horse to be around. He's got a great stride and a great mind."
Cairo Prince was bred by Richard and Katherine Elam in Kentucky, and initially sold for $200,000 as a yearling at Keeneland January. Eight months later, the colt brought $250,000 at Keeneland September.
Out of multiple stakes heroine and Grade 3-placed Holy Bubbette, Cairo Prince is a three-quarter brother to the Grade 1-placed Nonna Mia, and a half-brother to the stakes-placed Holdin Bullets. Holy Bubbette, a daughter of race namesake Holy Bull, had another connection to Saturday's Gulfstream card. She is a half-sister to Grade 2 winner Sum Runner, who captured the Forward Gal in 1993. The Forward Gal was also contested on Saturday, with Onlyforyou extending her unbeaten streak.
Holy Bubbette is also a half-sister to Grade 1-placed Ms Louisett, from the further family of Canadian champion filly Cotton Carnival.