The top-ranked prospect on the East Coast entering 2016, Mohaymen performed up to expectations in Saturday’s Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream, winning impressively by a 3 ½-length margin. It marked the third straight convincing stakes tally for the gray colt.

Mohaymen possesses a star quality presently that is huge for Thoroughbred racing, which is seeking to capitalize upon the popularity of American Pharoah. As a result of massive crowds and increased ratings, observers wondered whether the sport would benefit from American Pharoah’s positive influence last year.

The answer to that question depends on the 3-year-old performers. American Pharoah was attracting thousands of spectators for morning workouts at Churchill Downs before becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 37 years – he was tabbed as “special” early in the process, with his prowess on track being the driving force of fandom. And that factor isn’t easy to duplicate.

Mohaymen and Nyquist put themselves in position to capitalize when displaying enormous promise at age 2, both going undefeated. And there are other accomplished juveniles, as well as flashy but lightly-raced types, who could really come on as 3-year-olds this winter/spring.

Exciting horses will continue to move the needle. And Mohaymen has the excitement factor in spades at this stage.

Holy Bull

The 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull drew only six runners and lacked speed. Greenpointcrusader, the Champagne (G1) winner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) favorite, provided quality on paper along with the well-regarded Conquest Big E, but horse players backed Mohaymen as if he was squaring off against five tomato cans, with the Tapit colt opening at 1-9 and leaving the starting gate at 1-5.

He ran to his odds.

Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and ridden by Junior Alvarado, Mohaymen broke alertly and was taken in hand to sit just behind a pokey opening quarter-mile in :24.64. But after a half-mile in :49.06, Mophaymen would wait no more and advanced between horses to stick a head in front nearing the completion of the backstretch.

Mohaymen showed the way by a neck through most of the far turn, with Greenpointcrusader working hard to stick with him to the outside. When Alvarado gave his mount the cue approaching the head of the stretch, Mohaymen readily kicked clear with a sharp turn of foot.

After three-quarters in 1:12.56, Mohaymen finished up well, completing the final five-sixteenths of a mile in 39.55 seconds en route to stopping the teletimer in 1:42.07. He posted a 115 BRIS Late Pace rating while extending the final margin to 3 ½ lengths in the short stretch.

Considering the slow pace, Mohaymen registered a respectable 97 BRIS Speed rating. He earned a big figure last fall, netting a 102 Speed for a facile 1 ½-length tally in the Remsen (G2), and is eligible to keep improving off the Holy Bull.

A half-brother to 2013 champion 2-year-old New Year’s Day, Mohaymen is out of a mare by Dixie Union, sire of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags. Mohaymen possesses a nice mix of speed and stamina in his bloodlines similar to Tonalist, the 2013 Belmont Stakes victor and another son of leading sire Tapit.

Mohaymen has the tactical speed to put himself up close if necessary, but he figures to race more midpack given a legitimate pace up front. The versatility serves him well and the $2.2 million yearling purchase passed his first test of the year in good order.

And with potentially a very high ceiling, Mohaymen has Thoroughbred racing fans looking forward to his next start in either the February 27 Fountain of Youth (G2) or April 2 Florida Derby (G1).

Greenpointcrusader was taken out of his element on the front end due to the lack of pace – the Bernardini colt displayed a fine late turn of foot in both wins last year – and even though he wound up no match for the winner, the Dominick Schettino trainee ran well finishing a clear second. The Holy Bull served as a good starting point and Greenpointcrusader remains a solid Kentucky Derby prospect.

Fellowship, who was exiting a non-threatening fifth to Mucho Macho Man winner Awesome Speed, checked in a well-beaten third and probably wants no part of longer distances or deeper fields.

Conquest Big E recorded a clunker in fourth. A smart allowance winner at Churchill Downs in his juvenile finale, the Tapit colt could be viewed as trainer Mark Casse’s top prospect entering 2016, with stablemate Airoforce initially aiming for a Tampa route, and it was easy to criticize him afterward. However, Conquest Big E appeared to exit the race with an illness, according to Casse, and Airoforce also became sick in recent days, forcing connections to rule him out of the February 13 Sam F. Davis (G3).

He still has much to prove, but Conquest Big E probably deserves a pass considering he never ran a step in the Holy Bull.

Withers

Sunny Ridge concluded 2015 with runner-up finishes in the Champagne and Delta Jackpot (G3), finishing behind Greenpointcrusader and Exaggerator in those spots, but I didn’t see the New Jersey-bred gelded son of Holy Bull ranked on any Kentucky Derby lists entering this year.

The Jason Servis trainee is receiving much more respect following Saturday’s victory in the Withers (G3) at Aqueduct. Sunny Ridge broke sharp from his outside post and tracked pacesetter Vorticity in second through marginal splits of :24.56 and :49.81 in the 1 1/16-mile race over the inner track.

With new jockey Manny Franco, Sunny Ridge advanced to a short lead in midstretch and always appeared best scoring by a measured three-quarters of a length margin. Vorticity, who was exiting a non-threatening second in the January 2 Jerome (G3), proved game to the wire, finishing a length clear of last-out debut maiden winner Adventist, who raced a bit greenly in only his second career start.

Flexibility brought a lofty reputation into the Withers, finishing second to Mohaymen in the Nashua (G2) and Remsen before an authoritative 4 ¼-length decision in the Jerome, but never got seriously involved in the action, coming under a ride from Irad Ortiz Jr. on the far turn before finishing up evenly in fourth. The 1-2 favorite proved extremely disappointing, suddenly appearing to be more pretender than contender, but all hope isn’t lost yet for the Chad Brown-trained son of Bluegrass Cat.

Sunny Ridge wasn’t close to Greenpointcrusader in the Champagne, finishing 4 ½ lengths back in second, but the gray gelding ran a big race in the November 21 Delta Jackpot, missing by only a neck after battling Exaggrator from the far turn to the finish line. He flattered his rival in the Withers, but Sunny Ridge will need to keep showing more after registering only a 92 BRIS Speed rating on Saturday.

Cal Cup Derby, Swale

Smokey Image remained unbeaten while making his two-turn debut in Saturday’s restricted California Cup Derby, winning easily by 8 ½ lengths, and the chestnut colt will now be headed to Kentucky Derby preps. He’ll try to follow the same path as 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero California Chrome, who made a splash romping in the King Glorious for Cal-breds in late December before carrying his success forward with big wins in the San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1).

Making his first start for Carla Gaines, Smokey Image registered a decent 96 BRIS Speed rating leading wire to wire and it will be interesting to see whether he can carry speed forward at longer distances against better company. He made his first five starts sprinting but the pedigree is there for added ground – Smokey Image is by 2004 Santa Anita H. (G1) and Pimlico Special (G1) winner Southern Image and counts Free House, Smart Strike and Nureyev as the sires of his first three dams.

New jockey Victor Espinoza came away impressed, touting Smokey Image’s Kentucky Derby potential afterward, and Espinoza will be seeking his third straight Run for the Roses after serving as the pilot for American Pharoah and California Chrome.

After winning his first two starts by a combined 14 ½ lengths, Awesome Banner continued to thrash the competition in Saturday’s 7-furlong Swale (G2) at Gulfstream, rolling unopposed through the stretch to a five-length triumph. I’m not keen on his chances at longer distances this spring, but the Awesome of Course colt will be a threat to carry his speed 1 1/16 miles next time out for trainer Stanley Gold.

Economic Model appearing to be languishing near the back of the Swale field turning for home but the Brown-trained colt finally offered something in the final furlong, passing rivals to get up for second. The son of Flatter figured to need the race, making his first appearance since a debut win at Saratoga in early August, and should appreciate more ground as he stretches out to two turns next time.

Upcoming

The Road to the Kentucky Derby series continues with Saturday’s $150,000 Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita and Mor Spirit is the horse to beat.

After dropping his first start at a sprint, the Eskendreya colt stretched out to two turns with a 4 ¾-length maiden win at Santa Anita in late October. The dark bay ridgling jumped straight to stakes company, recorded a commendable runner-up in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) five weeks later over a sloppy track Churchill Downs, and Mor Spirit exits a 1 ¼-length victory in the December 19 Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) as the odds-on favorite.

He’s the leading prospect for Bob Baffert, who is hoping to break a three-way tie for second all-time with a fifth Kentucky Derby win, and Gary Stevens has the call.

Kentucky Derby Top 10

The order has shifted in recent weeks with a few defections and I’m stubbornly keeping Nyquist out of my top 10. With a number of speed influences on both sides of his pedigree, the juvenile champ will face a stern test if he makes the Kentucky Derby starting gate and his soft schedule (a 7-furlong race followed by a lone two-turn start in early April) doesn’t appear beneficial for the 1 ¼-mile distance.

My colleague Kellie Reilly explored the challenges facing Nyquist in greater detail last month.

1) Mohaymen – Established himself as a clear favorite in the Holy Bull

2) Mor Spirit – Can solidify his reputation in the Lewis

3) Brody’s Cause – Displayed excellent class last year and Giant’s Causeway colt is eligible to keep showing more this spring

4) Exaggerator – Flattered by Withers winner Sunny Ridge, Curlin colt will square off against Nyquist in February 15 San Vicente (G2)

5) Greenpointcrusader – Taken out of his best game on the front end, colt figures to improve off Holy Bull runner-up

6) Zulu – Todd Pletcher’s leading prospect, Bernardini colt is scheduled to make stakes bow in February 27 Fountain of Youth

7) Smokey Image – Cal-bred speedster has a chance to make a significant impact versus open rivals

8) Mo Tom – Lecomte (G3) winner packs a big late kick

9) Shagaf – Recent allowance tally wasn’t overwhelming but Bernardini colt is now 2-for-2 for Brown and headed to stakes company

10) Drefong – Impressive maiden winner for Baffert

Archive

Here are my previous Kentucky Derby Reports:

January 20: Stakes-experience proves valuable

January 13: Sham winner doesn’t run fast but plenty of time remains

January 7: January brings a sense of anticipation