Kentucky Derby: The mystery horse that could do something never done before

One man come he to justify
One man to overthrow 

— U2, Pride

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert is the man who came here with Justify, the Kentucky Derby pre-race favorite, a strapping beast being touted as a potential superhorse. But if there is one man who may be able to overthrow the king of the Triple Crown, it’s Aidan O’Brien.

Loosely applying the lyrics of one Irish powerhouse to another, it may finally be time for County Wexford native O’Brien and the Coolmore equine monolith to overthrow the status quo and stake their claim to the biggest prize in American horse racing.

Mendelssohn, international horse of intrigue, will take the silks of the world’s biggest breeding and racing operation onto the Churchill Downs track Saturday and try to do what no European-trained animal has ever done: win the Kentucky Derby. Thirty-six have previously tried, according to the Irish Times, and all have gone home with Louisville dirt kicked in their faces. Bold Arrangement is the only Euro-trained horse to even hit the board in the 144-year history of the Derby, finishing second in 1986.

Animals from the wealthy racing machines in the United Arab Emirates have met the same fate. That group is 0-for-12 on the first Saturday in May, never finishing better than fifth. Last year they sent over Thunder Snow, who came bucking out the gate and refused to run a step – an embarrassing non-effort that the animal redeemed last month by winning the Dubai World Cup.

The last horse to win the Derby without having its last prep race (at least) in the United States was Canonero II, a lightly regarded import from Venezuela, in 1971. Since then, the garland of roses has been the exclusive property of American-based horses.

A lot of people think Mendelssohn has the goods to change all that. There are some compelling reasons why.

Pedigree and conformation spurred Coolmore, the world’s largest breeding and racing outfit, to pay a whopping $3 million for Hip No. 454, as yearlings are identified in the sales ring. That was in September 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky, and it was the biggest price paid in North America for a yearling in ’16.

Mendelssohn won the UAE Derby race during the Dubai World Cup by more than 18 lengths. (EFE)
Mendelssohn won the UAE Derby race during the Dubai World Cup by more than 18 lengths. (EFE)

Having shelled out that kind of cash, Coolmore naturally sent Mendelssohn to O’Brien, who has established himself as the foremost international trainer in the sport. For his second race, O’Brien put the colt in the hands of Coolmore’s top jockey, Ryan Moore, and the winning commenced.

Last November, O’Brien shipped Mendelssohn stateside for the first time and won the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf race, a major score. Since then Mendelssohn has raced twice on dirt overseas, winning a race in Ireland and then having the huge race in Dubai that commanded the attention of all Derby analysts.

The bay colt trampled the field in the UAE Derby March 31, winning by 18½ lengths – a visually stunning performance. The competition was underwhelming compared to some American prep races, but a track-record time stamped some authenticity on the rout. Mendelssohn was given a Beyer Racing Figure of 106, surpassed among Derby horses only by Justify’s 107 in winning the Santa Anita Derby.

That race, coupled with O’Brien’s reputation, was enough to establish Mendelssohn as the 5-1 second betting choice for the Derby behind Justify (3-1). All he has to do now is defeat a formidable favorite and conquer a Europe-to-Louisville transition that has beaten all who have previously tried it.

In addition to the rigors of traveling, adjusting to the style of American dirt campaigning can be a challenge. European horses often are trained more for distance, whereas many U.S. trainers favor drilling speed into their 3-year-olds. And when the starting gate opens Saturday for a 20-horse charge toward the first turn, a roughneck race and breakneck pace can take the starch out of an animal unaccustomed to such tumult.

“I think [the foreign horses] take all the worst of it when they come over here,” said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won 14 Triple Crown races, including four Kentucky Derbies. “If I was the race manager, I would have said, ‘Look, we’re running him in the Blue Grass [a stakes race in Lexington in April].’ ”

Instead of getting in an American prep race, Coolmore is coming in at the last minute. Which has made Mendelssohn the mystery horse of this Derby.

The colt flew across the Atlantic on Monday but was diverted in mid-flight from Louisville to Indianapolis, part of a paperwork snafu regarding another horse on the flight, according to the Daily Racing Forum. (Churchill officials were on the phone much of the day Tuesday, trying to get government clearance for Mendelssohn to land in Louisville, but it never happened.) One member of the Mendelssohn training operation said Wednesday morning that they learned of their re-routing while in the air.

Under the long-standing Derby credo that there’s no such thing as a little hiccup leading into this race, that could be a problem. But given the horse’s previous shipping history — winning in America last fall and in Dubai 33 days ago — it’s more likely a non-factor.

Still, the anticipation is palpable to finally see the horse on the track beneath the Twin Spires. Actually, to see him at all. He is a Derby recluse.

Per regulations, foreign horses must spend 42 hours in the quarantine barn upon arrival. That’s Barn 17 at Churchill, and it’s surrounded by screens and fencing that makes viewing the horses inside impossible. Stable hands who do enter the shed row must put on white jump suits — the only thing separating this from a full hazmat look is the lack of headgear.

O’Brien remains out of sight and earshot as well. He was billed as a guest on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference last week, but no-showed the call. He hadn’t yet arrived in the States as of Wednesday afternoon. His assistants on the grounds here weren’t doing much talking, either.

Thursday morning, they will open the gates of the quarantine barn and Mendelssohn will finally make an appearance on the Churchill track — the last Derby horse to see and be seen. Two days later, he will try to overthrow the status quo and plant an Irish flag on the most hallowed racing soil in America. For Aidan O’Brien it would be, to quote U2, a beautiful day.

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