If you threw a bucket of mud in my face, perhaps I’d run bucking down the stretch at Churchill Downs, like Thunder Snow (by Helmet) in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby last year, but the handsome colt cast those memories aside as he raced to victory in the G1 Dubai World Cup on March 31.
Earlier on the same card, however, the colt with 2018 Kentucky Derby prospects swept to an overpowering 18 ½ length success in the G2 UAE Derby, won last year by Thunder Snow. Mendelssohn (Scat Daddy) had earned G1 brackets last year with victory in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, and after that race, trainer Aidan O’Brien said, “We knew he was a real American dirt horse [on pedigree], but we didn’t want to stop the progression, so that’s why we left him on the grass as maybe he wasn’t ready” for a switch of surface last year.
The group at Coolmore do not rush headlong into serious decisions, and the choices of what to do with Mendelssohn were serious. He is a good-looking horse who was a star yearling, and if he made a major success on the racecourse, he would be very valuable at stud.
In keeping with a formal evaluation of the realities of racing and breeding at the highest levels, the trainer at Ballydoyle said, “We had it in our head that maybe we could train Mendelssohn for the Kentucky Derby especially now we have the trials at home.
So the process was started last year, with the recognition that Mendelssohn was better suited, at least potentiallly, to dirt, and then the option to try the Kentucky Derby trials in Europe (or Dubai) offered that potential to work on things without jumping the pond and doing everything in one lick.
For Mendelssohn’s 2018 debut, the dark bay colt went to the Patton Stakes at Dundalk on synthetic. This was a prep, not the Guineas, and the colt looked professional but not spectacular in winning his race by three-quarters of a length.
That race was a sufficient step along the path, however, for Coolmore to take Mendelssohn to Dubai, rather than keep him in Ireland for a local prep for the classic in Kentucky.
That was a positive decision because this good-looking young athlete has not been the quickest learner. O’Brien said, “He’s a bit slow mentally to grasp what’s required.”
Last year at Santa Anita, Mendelssohn had taken his race well, but “when he got his head in front he wasn’t quite sure what to do.” Still, the colt had the natural ability to win his race. O’Brien said, “We felt he was still a bit green, but he was learning and getting better all the time.”
The race at Meydan represented a two-fold challenge for Mendelssohn. First, the UAE Derby was his debut on dirt, and second, it is raced at the longest distance of any of the Kentucky Derby preps at a bit more than 9 ½ furlongs. If the colt had any issues with either the surface or distance, this race should have found him out.
The result surely outshone anything the Coolmore crew could have hoped for.
Mendelssohn led soon after the break, after three furlongs was clear of his competitors, and from there on, the dark colt drew farther and farther away. By the time he broke the beam at the wire, Mendelssohn was more than 18 lengths clear of his nearest pursuer, the Tiz Wonderful filly Rayya, and won the race in local record time of 1:55.18.
It was the sort of lopsided victory that is at once hard to evaluate and yet hard not to be swayed toward enthusiasm.
“He came forward lovely from his run at Dundalk a few weeks ago,” O’Brien said. “We weren’t sure how he would handle the distance, but you have to say he saw it out pretty well.
“He is naturally quick and has a lot of tactical early speed. He did it the hard way, but he did it so easily. He is very well bred, he has a great physique, and you can see why he cost the lads a lot of money at the sales. We will look forward to going to Kentucky with him now. He is a terrific horse, really very exciting.”
So, the good-looking colt with all the promise will be coming back to his birthplace in Kentucky and representing his breeders, owners and fans in the Run for the Roses.
Bred in Kentucky by Clarkland Farm, Mendelssohn is out of 2016 Broodmare of the Year Leslie’s Lady, by Tricky Creek. He is a half-brother to both champion Beholder (Henny Hughes) and to the highly regarded sire Into Mischief (Harlan’s Holiday), whose 3-year-old son Audible won the G1 Florida Derby on the same day as Mendelssohn’s success in Dubai.
Consigned by Clarkland to the 2016 Keeneland September sale, Mendelssohn sold for $3 million to the Coolmore partners.
Taken to Ballydoyle in Ireland for training and preparation, the colt broke his maiden in his second start but then finished off the board in the G2 Champagne Stakes at Doncaster after “he knocked himself coming out of the stalls,” according to rider Ryan Moore. In his fourth start, Mendelssohn was second to divisional leader US Navy Flag in the G1 Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket, then came to Southern California and captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
Moore assessed the UAE Derby result and the colt’s prospects: “He’s a horse with a lot of speed. He still feels like there’s more physical improvement in him. There’s more strengthening to come; he’s going to get better.”
Those might be the scariest words of all.