While it’s virtually a foregone conclusion that Ryan Moore will ride Mendelssohn in the Kentucky Derby (G1), rather than stay home for Newmarket’s 2000 Guineas (G1) on the same day, there’s an element to this decision that may not be getting enough attention. (Or if it has, I missed it.)
First, let’s state the obvious: Mendelssohn rates as the best chance of an historic Kentucky Derby victory for Moore and for trainer Aidan O’Brien. That’s not just a comparison to past Ballydoyle residents who’ve attempted it, including Mendelssohn’s own paternal grandsire, Johannesburg. Rather, it’s difficult to imagine a future contender who would bring the same set of credentials. Between his pedigree as a Scat Daddy half-brother to a surefire Hall of Famer in Beholder, and his record-setting romp in the UAE Derby (G2), Mendelssohn presents an unrepeatable opportunity. O’Brien could train 10 more UAE Derby winners and not find one as compelling a prospect for Churchill Downs.
And personal considerations aren’t even the half of it. What a coup it would be for Coolmore, whose raison d’etre is the stallion-making business, to campaign the first European shipper – indeed the first from anywhere outside the Western Hemisphere – to win the roses.
A big hint regarding Moore’s plans came when the British ace turned up at Keeneland for the Blue Grass (G2). The dress rehearsal aspect was clear because the Coolmore runner in the Blue Grass, Marconi, didn’t exactly require Moore’s services in his own right. A 9-1 chance with upside but still plenty to prove, Marconi could have finished eighth with any other warm body in the saddle. But there Moore was, getting an extra bit of dirt practice in a major stateside prep.
So why is there any reason to think twice about the Guineas, which Moore has already won a couple of times? Other than the usual precautions of waiting to make sure everything is on course with Mendelssohn, I’d argue that it’s because this Guineas has the potential to be historic too.
The O’Brien-trained Saxon Warrior actually has the profile of a horse who could be in a position to sweep the English Triple Crown. A nearly unheard-of proposition since Nijinsky II accomplished it in 1970, the English Triple Crown has been attempted only once in the interim – by O’Brien’s Camelot in 2012. He scraped home by a neck in the 2000 Guineas over a mile, then powered home by five lengths in the Derby (G1) at Epsom. Stamina was not a serious concern for the son of Montjeu going into the about 1 3/4-mile St Leger (G1) at Doncaster, but a spot of trouble in running didn’t help, and he wound up second.
Saxon Warrior was the antepost favorite for the Guineas until stablemate Gustav Klimt just surpassed him this weekend, bettors being suitably impressed by his comeback score in Saturday’s Leopardstown 2000 Guineas Trial. Moore was aboard Gustav Klimt, picking up another classic clue.
Bred as more of a Derby type, Saxon Warrior is by Japanese legend Deep Impact, but may receive a bit of dash from his dam, Maybe, Europe’s co-champion juvenile filly of 2011. A past O’Brien star herself, Maybe nevertheless has plenty of classic influences as a daughter of Galileo, from the immediate family of 2011 Oaks (G1) victress Dancing Rain and 1992 Epsom Derby hero Dr Devious (who ran seventh behind Lil E. Tee in the Kentucky Derby).
If Saxon Warrior can get through the Guineas, at a trip that may be on the short side for him at this stage of life, he’s favored to add the Derby. And if he’s the established class of the crop, the St Leger may be within his scope come September.
Of course, several links in the chain would have to come together over months for that rosy scenario for Saxon Warrior to play out. In comparison, Mendelssohn trying the Kentucky Derby is the proverbial bird in the hand, with Saxon Warrior’s two in the bush.
Also, given the sheer quantity of turf bluebloods that O’Brien receives every year, he has a better chance of discovering an English Triple Crown possible in the pipeline than a Kentucky Derby threat. It took just six years after Camelot for Saxon Warrior to come along.
Still, an English Triple Crown would be a coup in its own right for Coolmore. If not the commercial success that a Mendelssohn Kentucky Derby victory would be, the prestige would be enormous. The Coolmore principals took that to heart enough to let Camelot try it, so it’s an angle not to be dismissed lightly. And if the Guineas is perhaps the trickiest of the three for Saxon Warrior, wouldn’t you think twice about having your ace pilot in the cockpit?
At the risk of being flippantly over-simplistic, the Kentucky Derby versus Guineas question could be posed this way: Does Moore want to emulate Steve Cauthen (in reverse), garnering a Kentucky Derby trophy to add to his Epsom Derbies? Or Lester Piggott, the last jockey to win the English Triple Crown?
Moore has wanted the Kentucky Derby above all in the past. Speaking to Julian Muscat in Owner/Breeder (posted May 1, 2013), he said:
“If I could only win one, I’d like it to be the Kentucky Derby. It’s a really amazing race.
“I’d love to sit on a horse that could jump and had the speed to go with those 22 runners into that first turn. It is probably the most unrealistic of the four races to think I could win, but I’d take it over the 2000 Guineas.”
Mendelssohn sounds like that hypothetical horse. The “which do you want” question fits if Moore alone would be the final arbiter, but the Coolmore decision making process is probably more involved than that.
If Moore takes the reins as forecast at Churchill Downs, the decision could be interpreted as a sign of greater hopes in Mendelssohn than in Saxon Warrior on that first Saturday in May. Or it could be simply that the Kentucky Derby is more meaningful than the Guineas, period. But given what Saxon Warrior might become, in no ordinary Guineas, that’s saying quite a lot.