Mendelssohn last as Justify delivers on the hype in Kentucky Derby
Report: USA, Saturday
Churchill Downs: Kentucky Derby (Grade 1) 1m2f | dirt | 3yo
At a Kentucky Derby that was more about Pacamacs than parasols, European hopes of a historic victory via Mendelssohn were drowned in the mud at a rain-sodden Churchill Downs as the Ballydoyle contender finished stone last behind the much-heralded Justify (Bob Baffert/Mike Smith).
Sent off 2.9-1 favourite, the imposing chestnut specimen delivered on the hype with a hugely impressive performance to defy utterly filthy conditions in front of a crowd of 157,813 assaulted by torrential downpours all day long beneath the Twin Spires in Louisville, where there were warnings of flash floods in some parts of town.
Victory meant he lifted the so-called 'curse of Apollo' in becoming the first horse since 1882 to win without having run as a two-year-old; Justify did not run until February 15. Another Kentucky Derby hoodoo remains fully intact, however, in that no European-trained horse has ever won. In that context, having crossed the Atlantic on the back of such expectation, Mendelssohn can only be regarded as a bitter disappointment. Frankly, the Aidan O'Brien colt – like the winner, a son of Scat Daddy – endured a horrendous time under Ryan Moore. The Kentucky Derby is billed as the 'greatest two minutes in sports'; well, not for Ballydoyle it wasn't.
Considered the best chance of a European winner in the 144-year history of America's most celebrated race, Mendelssohn did not win. Boy, did he not win. In fact, he finished last of the 20 runners, banged about by other horses after a slowish break and never a serious factor thereafter.
"He got beat up out the gate and proceeded to check on the first turn and was never in a good place," said Ryan Moore. "The race was over then. The track condition did not bother him; he had a rough trip early on."
If everything went Mendelssohn's way in the UAE Derby, precisely nothing went his way on this occasion and the result was a display as abject as Meydan was spectacular. Presumably, nobody connected with Ballydoyle will ever need reminding quite how tough a race this can be. At least they had Saxon Warrior to go home to.
Aidan O'Brien told local reporters they could expect to see Mendelssohn again in the Breeders' Cup Classic. "He just got knocked over coming out of the gate and then he got knocked over again going into the first bend, but he'll be fine," said the trainer.
"He was never used to getting that much kickback. It's a totally different experience, you know, so we'll be fine. We'll take him home and give him a break and come back – we'll look forward to the Classic with him."
If Mendelssohn lost his race almost as soon as they left the gate, Justify went a long way to winning the $2.2 million event at the start as he broke alertly and was able to settle into stride just outside the speedy front-runner Promises Fulfilled.
Justify sat right up close to a blazing pace before taking over on the far turn and then grinding out the gallop down the stretch to beat last year's two-year-old champion Good Magic by two and a half lengths, with Audible just a head behind in third.
"Him, American Pharoah and Arrogate are cut from a different cloth, they're great," said trainer Bob Baffert, winning America's most celebrated race for the fifth time in a legendary career. "It took a great horse to do what he did – I rank him up there with my top horses. We saw something really great. That’s greatness right there.
"That's the best Kentucky Derby winning performance that I've brought up here," he added. "We knew he was capable. He showed me that but I didn't want to say it. Hey, I don't want to jinx myself, but we knew – I knew I had something really special, but he had to prove it today."
Although keeping out of the kickback is usually a fine idea on muddy surfaces, the early fractions were red-hot (22.24s and 45.77s), giving an anxious Baffert one more thing to worry about. "I was nervous all day – this track really had me worried," he admitted, though he was dressed for the weather in a polythene poncho. "When we got away clean I thought we had a chance, but when I saw that 22-and-change and 45 for the half, I thought 'wow, that's fast!'
"I was like, wow, man, this poor little horse. He's going to lay down. There's no way. He's going to lay down. All this . . . been fretting all week trying to get this big horse there. It's like having Lebron James on your team. You better win a championship with him. That's the way we feel."
Justify carried the colours of WinStar Farm, who own him in partnership with the China Horse Club and others. The son of Scat Daddy was the sixth winning favourite in a row on the US pari-mutuel; the final time of 2m04.2s reflected both the mess of a racetrack on which they were racing, and sizzling early sectionals that left them paddling in the closing stages.
"He's just something else," added the rider known as 'Big Money Mike' owing to his penchant for winning the most lucrative races. "I can't describe how special this horse is. He's got that 'it' factor. He's just well above average and he's got the mind to go with it. For such a young horse he's just so big and talented."
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