It was a sight for wet eyes Thursday. Wet not from emotion but from the drenching, unrelenting rain that hit Churchill Downs the day before the Breeders’ Cup.
With the sun merely a rumor, the floodlights glistened off 16 horses that had been flown in from Ireland. Emerging from quarantine, they strode in single file onto the sloppy main track to turn in a once-around canter under the watch of their famously successful trainer Aidan O’Brien.
But the shiniest object against the gray was not morning-line Juvenile Turf favorite Anthony Van Dyck. Instead, since we are a racing land that is obsessed with dirt, it was Mendelssohn that got most of the attention.
Yes, the same Mendelssohn that six months ago on the very same track was pinned coming out of the gate into a Kentucky Derby that, for him, seemed more like a NASCAR restart. No green-white-checkered here. Mendelssohn was pulled up to finish last, yet another UAE Derby failure in the Run for the Roses.
Now he gets another chance over the very same 1¼ miles of dirt when he tries to upset Accelerate and another dozen horses Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“The conditions and the circumstances that he met (in the Derby) he wasn’t properly prepared for,” O’Brien told a mix of U.S. and European turf writers in a holding room, a welcome break from the rain outside. “When the slop came, it just became very aggressive, and everyone became very anxious. I think when it’s sloppy it’s very hard for a horse to take any kickback or come from behind. We got caught because our preparation wasn’t right.”
The weather should be drier by Saturday, but that alone will not the a magic wand to transform the main track here into a winner for O’Brien. Not only has he failed to hit the board with his six Kentucky Derby horses, he is also 0-for-16 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Mendelssohn (12-1 on the morning line), drawn 9 in the field of 14, will be his long-shot candidate to break that schneid.
So why should any horseplayer believe that this horse will end a four-race losing streak and get his first win since an 18-length score in the UAE Derby seven months ago made him fool’s gold for bettors?
“We decided we would pull back, go slow and give him a proper preparation for the Classic,” O’Brien said. “We had it in our mind that we would give him two races (in America). But because he was taking his races so well we put a third one in there.”
Mendelssohn was better, but there were still no wins coming. He was a distant third to Firenze Fire in the Dwyer nearly four months ago at Belmont Park. He took the early lead and faded to finish a credible second to Catholic Boy in the Travers at Saratoga. Then he helped set an insane pace before coming in third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup five weeks ago at Belmont Park.
Instead of shipping him once and leaving him over here, O’Brien had Mendelssohn flown back and forth between New York and Ireland between every race.
“We kept him at home where we felt that we would be able to control his exercise and keep him safe in between runs,” O’Brien said. “All we had to do then was get over and back without him stressing him too much. We think we did that.”
Mendelssohn was not providing as much of his trademark whinnying Thursday as he had before the Derby, so maybe he is getting used to all this. But still, it is a lot to ask of a horse to make four transoceanic trips and then come up with a win in his first test against older horses. Another indication that such a triumph would come out of the blue is that it would not only break O’Brien’s maiden in the Classic but also jockey Ryan Moore’s on U.S. dirt, on which he is 0-for-19.
But Moore remains steadfastly optimistic.
“He ran very well in the Travers,” Moore told Racing UK. “He has been building up from what he did at Belmont in July. Hopefully he is getting near his peak now.”
To try and find an edge, Moore is consulting with Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, a 15-time Breeders’ Cup winner who is here primarily as an analyst for NBC. But it apparently is not a consuming enough role to prevent Bailey from doing some informal coaching.
“Obviously Ryan will talk to everyone, and he will obviously come up with a plan,” O’Brien said. “I imagine that he will go forward (on Mendelssohn). He doesn’t mind getting the lead like he did last time.”
Even though O’Brien has saddled 12 Breeders’ Cup winners – all on the turf – he admits that he is out of his element on the dirt. All this experimenting with strategy cannot sound good to anyone who holds a futures ticket on Mendelssohn, but old hat has not been successful for O’Brien either.
American dirt is not O’Brien’s only kryptonite. He has tried and tried again to win the $5.25 million Group 1 Melbourne Cup, the 24-horse, two-mile handicap “that stops a nation” the first Tuesday of every November in Australia. Next week he has the favorite – Yucatan (4-1) – as well as The Cliffsofmoher (16-1) and Rostropovich (16-1) in the field at Flemington.
“The Melbourne Cup is a tough, difficult race,” O’Brien said. “We thought if (Yucatan) ended up at the end of the year where things hadn’t fallen for him, the Melbourne Cup would suit him well.”
As Moore has sought the counsel of Bailey, O’Brien has his own guru who can offer him advice on how to break through in Australia. His son, Joseph, then 24, became the youngest trainer ever to win the Melbourne Cup when he did it last year on his first try with Rekindling.
When asked if he would ask Joseph for advice, Aidan O’Brien said, “I always do. And obviously I’m getting advice from the lads the whole time.”
The lads are Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor, his longtime bosses at Coolmore who would love nothing more than to add the elusive prizes from the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Melbourne Cup to their stuffed trophy case at Ballydoyle.
Will horseplayers think that in either case that this is finally the year? That is the kind of stuff that make the betting slope so slippery.
Ron Flatter’s racing column will be posted each evening from the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville, Ky., through Saturday evening. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s guests are Eddie Olczyk, racing analyst for NBC and XBTV, and Brad Cox, trainer of Distaff favorite Monomoy Girl. The pop-up RFRP – a handicappers’ preview of all 14 races – also continues to be available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.