December 15, 2018

Royal Mo lone California hope for Preakness

Trainer John Shirreffs with Royal Mo at Oaklawn earlier this spring (Coady Photography)

by SCOTT SHAPIRO

The 2017 “Run for the Roses” is in the books as Always Dreaming cements his name in history and once and for all we can hopefully put the silly narrative that Todd Pletcher cannot get a horse ready for the Kentucky Derby (G1) behind us.

As expected, the streak is over at three straight wins on the first Saturday in May for California based horses. However, West Coast invader Battle of Midway ran his heart out in earning a third place finish for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and for new owners Don Alberto Stable and WinStar Farm.

With the Derby in the rear view mirror and the Preakness (G1) less than two weeks away, let’s take a look back at the performances of the three Southern California horses in Louisville and preview the region’s lone chance in capturing its four consecutive victory in Maryland’s biggest race.

Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Gormley took the most action of the three West Coast based horses in the Kentucky Derby going off at odds of 22-1. The son of Malibu Moon had a pretty clean voyage from the auxiliary gate despite being wide into the first turn and on the backstretch. Three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Victor Espinoza was able to use his tactical speed to tuck this colt in right off the early pacesetters.

While it can be argued that he was not on the good part of the track, he had little excuse to tire as badly as he did mid-stretch, especially given the fact that he had already performed well in his only effort over an off going on January 7 in the Sham (G3) at Santa Anita. The John Shirreffs-conditioned runner is probably a cut below the top three-year-old males in the country, as well as best off going eight or maybe nine furlongs at the most.

The aforementioned Battle of Midway was sent off at odds of 40-1 and he performed admirably from start to finish.

Jockey Flavian Prat regrouped after a disappointing effort on Kentucky Oaks (G1) favorite Paradise Woods to get this son of Smart Strike into a perfect position early just a couple lengths off the lead set by 54-1 long shot State of Honor.

Battle of Midway traveled in the two- and three-path through most of the mile-and-a-quarter trek, and while he was no match for the top two finishers in the final furlong, he held off morning line favorite Classic Empire and returned a massive $20 to Show. He appears poised to have a strong 2017 after resting up back in Arcadia.

The final participant from out West was Blue Grass (G2) winner Irap. Doug O’Neill and Paul Reddam were looking for their third Kentucky Derby victory and second in as many years, but it was not to be with this son of Tiznow.

Jockey Mario Gutierrez found a nice spot early on the backstretch, but his colt’s arduous three-year-old campaign appeared to take its toll as the 41-1 outsider was one of the first to give way. He ended up out-finishing just two horses in the end.

With the quick turnaround and the taxing mile and a quarter event as determining factors, Gormley, Battle of Midway and Irap will all bypass the May 20 Preakness. However, John Shirreffs will send his other talented three-year-old, Royal Mo, to Baltimore to compete against what looks like a field of 11 hoping to capture the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Royal Mo is all but certain to be a factor in the Preakness given his early speed, but his lone graded stakes win came against a weak bunch in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) on February 4.

Hall of Famer Gary Stevens will ride the Uncle Mo colt, and while it remains to be seen whether he can compete with the likes of Always Dreaming, Lookin at Lee and Classic Empire, barring unforeseen circumstances he will be involved in the early pace. He will need to move forward much like Battle of Midway did in the Kentucky Derby to hit the board in Baltimore, but much crazier things have happened.