This year's Kentucky Derby is unlike anything we've seen in many years, as it looks as if we have a number of budding superstars, some of whom have already been labeled as freaks. A couple, Justify and Magnum Moon, are undefeated, have displayed extraordinary brilliance, and are looking to defy history by putting an end to the so-called Apollo curse. We have last year's champion 2-year-old Good Magic, who has already defied history by not only winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile while still a maiden, but crushing a deep and talented field. He returned to that form by winning the Blue Grass Stakes and appears to be sitting on a big effort.
And there is Florida Derby winner Audible and Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy, who have suffered only one defeat, with the former coming into the race off three dominating victories, two of them in major Derby preps. And finally there is the talented Vino Rosso and Bolt d'Oro, who have proven themselves in major stakes and have pedigrees that all but guarantee they will love the mile and a quarter.
So, with a such a remarkable array of talent, four of the contenders coming from the same barn, how should one look at a European invader? Is it possible that it is the Irish-trained Mendelssohn who actually is the freak? The son of the American sire Scat Daddy may be the most difficult horse to get a real handle on following his total annihilation of the UAE Derby I Dubai.
Mendelssohn, from the always potent and dangerous Aidan O'Brien arsenal, is unlike any European invader we have seen in a long time, having such strong ties to U.S, breeding through his sire, his sister, the great Beholder, and his brother, Into Mischief, a fast racehorse who has emerged as one the top sires in America. Yet when he came here for the Breeders' Cup, he surprisingly was entered in the Juvenile Turf instead of the Juvenile. That proved to be a smart move by O’Brien, as Mendelssohn sat right behind the leaders in third, then split horses and burst clear with an explosive turn of foot and held off the late closers.
Despite Mendelssohn running all his races at 2 on grass, O'Brien always had the Kentucky Derby as his long-range goal. In Europe, he was a bit of an enigma, running terribly in his career debut and in the group 2 Champagne Stakes. But equipped with blinkers for the group 1 Dewhurst Stakes, he ran a strong second at 50-1 before coming to America for the Breeders' Cup, where he was sent off as a 9-2 favorite.
As a 3-year-old, O'Brien ran him in the one-mile Patton Stakes on the all-weather surface at Dundalk under 134 pounds and he scored a workmanlike three-quarters of a length victory over two stablemates. That was one step closer to dirt, but provided no indication of what was to come. Now it was on to the UAE Derby at 1 3/16 miles against what appeared to be a deep talented field from the U.S., Europe, Dubai, and Japan, including Godolphin’s 10 1/2-length UAE Two Thousand Guineas winner Gold Town, who had Derby aspirations of his own. What happened next caught everyone by surprise. Mendelssohn shot right to the lead and kept opening up on his opponents until they were mere specks in the distance. The winning margin was an astounding 18 1/2 lengths, with Mendelssohn setting a new track record.
Just like that, it was as if the Kentucky Derby picture had been hit over the head with a sledgehammer. What in the world were we dealing with? As quickly as Mendelssohn had shot away from his opponents, that's how quickly he shot up the rankings of Derby contenders.
So, that's where we stand now. All we can do is wait for this European phenom to arrive in Kentucky.
O'Brien spoke of the colt from his Ballydoyle headquarters. “As you know, Mendelssohn came to us in November as a yearling and was very babyish and immature. He ran down the field on his debut finishing eighth, but showed plenty of improvement to win his maiden at the Curragh in his second start, despite looking green and still immature.
“He improved again when he was second in the Dewhurst and then again when he won at the Breeders’ Cup in Del Mar. It was always the intention to run on the grass in Del Mar even though we always considered him a Kentucky Derby prospect, as we didn’t want to stop the progression he was making.”
As for how the colt is progressing since his UAE Derby procession, O'Brien said, “Mendelssohn’s preparation this season has gone smoothly, starting off in Dundalk and then onto the dirt surface in Dubai which was always the plan. I was very pleased with his run in Dubai, as he always seemed to be doing things very easily. As he went further and further clear he seemed incredibly relaxed.
“He is a very cool character and seems to be taking everything in his stride. We’ve always regarded him as a Kentucky Derby type horse, and we’ll just have to see how he gets on.”
Everyone in America is waiting to see as well.