The first of the year is the historic beginning of the Road to the Kentucky Derby. The early stakes are preliminary tests, however, for the lesser regarded 3-year-olds.
It's not until the previous year's champion 2-year-old makes his first start does the actual trek begin for the Run for the Roses and the Triple Crown. The early favorite for the Derby isn't bothered with a non-graded stakes or allowance race when making his yearly debut.
That's the case this year with Eclipse Award winner Shanghai Bobby making his initial start of 2013 in Saturday's $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the front-running colt has drawn the inside post in the 10-horse field.
Shanghai Bobby, owned in partnership by Starlight Racing, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael B. Tabor and Derrick Smith, will again have Rosie Napravnik in the saddle, the only jockey to ride the colt during his first five starts, all wins.
"Expectations are pretty high, so we have to make sure we've done our job properly and put him in a position where he will perform to the best of his capabilities," Pletcher said.
He will try to improve on his father's result in the Holy Bull back in 2002. The colt's sire, Harlan's Holiday, finished second in the stakes before a similar result in the Fountain of Youth and consecutive wins in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. Also owned by Starlight Racing, Harlan's Holiday was seventh in the Run for the Roses at 6-1 and fourth in the Preakness two weeks later at odds of 5-1.
Shanghai Bobby recorded four stakes victories as a 2-year-old, culminating with a head victory over He's Had Enough in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Nov. 3. The colt barely held on in the Juvenile which was the same distance as Saturday's race.
"I'm impressed the way he's been able to handle everything we've thrown at him," Pletcher said. "He's won at Aqueduct, Belmont, Saratoga, Santa Anita, and he seems to handle every surface we've put him on. He's handled shipping cross country, he's handled two turns. So he's been a real pleasure to train."
As reigning Kentucky Derby favorite, Shanghai Bobby has been installed as the 4-5 morning line top pick for the Holy Bull.
"He's grown up, filling out, all the things you want to see from him going into his 3-year-old year," Pletcher noted.
Although Shanghai Bobby has all the credentials, he won't be alone in the race. Nine challengers also will go to post for the Holy Bull.