This year’s edition of the Grade 1, $400,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on Monday brings together a flawed group of main contenders, including the Bob Baffert-trained duo of Defunded and Country Grammer, as well as the improving Señor Buscador. Also, there is the unknown long shot Piroli, who quietly enters this race with three wins in his last four starts.
Piroli is the possible backwheel key out of those four names. First, here is a short rundown of Defunded, Country Grammer and Señor Buscador.
Defunded enters this race in sharp form for Baffert. In his most recent start, he broke poorly in the local Californian Stakes (G2) and found a way to close the gap anyway from a wide position and drew clear to win by three lengths. In his previous races, Defunded made use of his speed to either set the pace or press the leader.
Two starts ago, Defunded set the pace in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) while under pressure from Baffert stablemate Hopper. Defunded understandably became tired and ended up third by less than a length as Stilleto Boy and Proxy made strong moves to take the first two positions.
Although the pace scenario gave Defunded an excuse for getting tired at the end, the race left Defunded with his second loss at 1 1/4 miles.
Country Grammer makes his first start back after a trip to the Middle East with mixed results. He ran a fine closing second in the Saudi Cup (G1) before turning in a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Dubai World Cup (G1). Perhaps the rail bias on the Dubai World Cup card affected his run.
Before those two starts overseas, Country Grammer finished second to Defunded in the Awesome Again Stakes (G1) and won the San Antonio Stakes (G2) by a widening 4 1/2 lengths after stalking the leaders early.
Country Grammer starts in this race at 8-5, which feels unattractive after his big fade in the Dubai World Cup and loss in the Saudi Cup.
Señor Buscador has been improving for trainer Todd Fincher and enters this race off a good closing fourth in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2), where he hung slightly after coming into the picture and lost by three lengths to Proxy.
Perhaps Señor Buscador came from too far off the pace in the Oaklawn. He gave up 10 lengths early before eventually closing the gap to 1 1/2 lengths before flattening out slightly late.
But another explanation for Señor Buscador’s hanging effort is that he might want to cut back to a shorter distance. In this spot, he stretches out to 10 furlongs after not finishing the race off at nine furlongs.
At this point in his career, it is too early to conclude that Señor Buscador cannot handle longer routes. At the same time, Señor Buscador is hard to trust alone.
Piroli is an interesting long shot who began the year by breaking his maiden over Golden Gate Fields synthetic. He then won a starter allowance at Santa Anita by 9 1/2 lengths with an improved 118 TimeformUS Speed Figure.
Then in March, Piroli took a local optional claimer by a smaller margin of half a length over Finneus in second, although Piroli still earned a solid 116 TimeformUS Speed Figure, which almost backed up the prior 118.
In his most recent start, Piroli made a wide move in another local one-mile optional claimer on May 13 and ended up hanging late. Despite a clear shot to pass the leaders and finish off the race from the outside in the mid-stretch, Piroli ended up only third while failing to close the gap.
Piroli’s recent loss is forgivable. Maybe the early pacesetter It’s My House became too comfortable on the lead with moderate fractions.
Furthermore, trainer Michael McCarthy thinks this gelding belongs in the Hollywood Gold Cup off those four races, even if Piroli lost his most recent start a few weeks ago. Last year, McCarthy won this race with There Goes Harvard after starting that horse in three straight local optional claimers. The pattern now with Piroli feels awfully similar to last year.
Given Piroli remains a 4-year-old gelding, he can continue to improve and hit a new career high. But is it enough to win even if he does improve? As a bettor, the more reasonable expectation is to think Piroli can hit the board at a big price and add life to the exacta or trifecta.
Piroli is the backwheel key.
Trifecta wheel: 1,2,4 / 1,2,4 / 5
Exacta wheel: 1,2,4 / 5