Racing Roundtable: Fierceness upset in Holy Bull, other shocking Kentucky Derby prep results

February 6th, 2024

This week, the Racing Roundtable examines a number of upset winners during a jam-packed weekend of Kentucky Derby (G1) and Oaks (G1) prep action, including Hades' victory in the Holy Bull (G3), where Fierceness finished a disappointing third as the 1-5 favorite.

What do you make of Mystik Dan's win in the Southwest (G3)?

James Scully: Visually impressive, Mystik Dan’s performance came out of nowhere over a muddy track, and I want to see him back it up before buying stock. A weakening fifth in the Smarty Jones S. on New Year’s Day, the Kenny McPeek-trained colt switched to rating tactics after a pair of unplaced efforts and finished fast to earn a 101 Brisnet Speed rating. Only one of the last 10 Southwest winners, three-year-old champion Elusive Quality in 2021, has come back to win their next start, and Mystik Dan will need to prove that his tour-de-force performance wasn’t an anomaly under the drying-out conditions.

Vance Hanson: Definitely the most compelling performance of the weekend aside from Nysos' in the Robert B. Lewis (G3). The work his connections did in getting him to rate and settle paid off in spades as he broke sharp, relaxed in a ground-saving position, and had tons in reserve when called upon in upper stretch. He could prove formidable if he can work out similar trips going forward. The one question is whether he simply relished the off going far better than his Southwest rivals. I'd want to see something similar, or close to it, over a fast surface in the Arkansas Derby (G1) to get a more accurate gauge on his Kentucky Derby potential.

Ashley Anderson: A muddy track may have factored into the surprise result of the Southwest, in which Mystik Dan, an 11-1 longshot, pulled off an eight-length victory over a number of stakes winners, including Street Sense (G3) hero Liberal Arts, Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) victor Wynstock, and Otto the Conqueror, who recently won the Springboard Mile. Prior to Saturday's win, Mystik Dan had finished fifth in his two previous starts, an eight-length fifth in an allowance optional claimer at Churchill Downs and a 3 1/4-length third in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn in January. As a son of two-time Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Goldencents, classic distances may not suit Mystik Dan as well as distances between eight and nine furlongs. I chalk up Saturday's result as more of a fluke due to the track conditions and remain skeptical of Mystik Dan's potential as a Kentucky Derby contender.

How do we view Fierceness after his third-place finish in the Holy Bull?

JS: Not favorably. Horses who fail to fire when everything doesn’t go right at the break lack fortitude, and Fierceness appears cut from the same cloth at this stage in his career. He needs to get mentally tougher and likely will have only one more prep before the Kentucky Derby, which features a 20-horse starting gate. The Holy Bull left me with serious doubts surrounding Fierceness.

VH: The biggest takeaway from Fierceness' loss in the Holy Bull is this: Stop running juvenile champions in the Holy Bull! The race has been absolute poison for two-year-old champs making their three-year-old debuts, as Fierceness joined a list that also includes Hansen, Shanghai Bobby, and Classic Empire. As for Fierceness, his slow start and early trouble were factors in the loss, but he was still capable of coming out on top, given the competition and his inherent ability when at or near the top of his game. The inconsistency he's displayed through four starts diminishes, in my eyes, his Kentucky Derby prospects.

AA: The Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner is an all-or-nothing type. He's now 4-2-0-1 for his career, and has failed to string together back-to-back victories thus far. He followed up an 11 1/4-length debut win in a maiden special weight last August with a dud in the Champagne (G1), where he came home seventh by more than 20 lengths over a sloppy Aqueduct track, then rebounded with a 6 1/4-length win in the Juvenile as a 16-1 longshot. All the hype surrounding him has tempered a bit with his three-year-old debut resulting in a 3 1/2-length third as the 1-5 post-time choice. A troubled start hampered Fierceness, who raced three-wide in third behind a slow pace set by Holy Bull winner Hades, and Fierceness could not shake off the unbeaten sophomore when making a bid around the far turn. As trainer Todd Pletcher noted, "If you watch the replay of the start, it was a pretty rough start, kind of similar to what happened in the Champagne. If he doesn't get away well, he doesn't get into the flow of the race the same way." 

On the plus side, Fierceness' inconsistency may lead to longer prices at the betting windows, much like we saw ahead of the Juvenile. This horse can win, and will win big when he does, but you never know which Fierceness you're going to get at the starting gate, so exercise caution along the road to the Derby.

What were your thoughts on the other Derby/Oaks prep action from the weekend?

JS: Nysos, who is unbeaten from three starts, won’t run in the Kentucky Derby, but he made quite the impression winning the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita by seven lengths. El Grande O, a talented sprint/middle-distance type in the New York-bred ranks, coughed up a clear lead in deep stretch of the 1 1/8-mile Withers (G3), allowing Pennsylvania-bred stakes winner Uncle Heavy to get up in the final stride, but it wasn’t a fast race at Aqueduct.

VH: Nysos indeed looked like something special taking the Robert B. Lewis, but is not eligible to compete in the Derby. Connections undoubtedly have the Preakness (G1) circled and will work their way backward from there, and there might not be too many Derby starters who might be willing to wheel back on short rest to take him on, if he runs back to the Lewis performance in his next start or two. I found the Withers result about on par with the Holy Bull. The winners earned similar Brisnet Speed ratings, but the efforts themselves were less eye-catching and slower than what we saw in both the Southwest and Lewis.

AA: Nysos may be ineligible to compete in the Kentucky Derby, as he's conditioned by a trainer suspended from Churchill for the season, but the Nyquist colt may be the best three-year-old in the country. The Bob Baffert trainee has now won all three starts by 26 3/4 lengths, including an 8 3/4-length victory in his stakes debut, the Bob Hope (G3), and a 7 1/2-length tally in the Robert B. Lewis on Saturday against six rivals. Nysos has posted triple-digit Brisnet figures in all three starts and will be one to watch come Preakness time. Many of the top Derby hopefuls have returned off dominant scores to fail in their next start (see: Fierceness, Nash, Timberlake), but Nysos continues to show consistency while racing along the California circuit.