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Mendelssohn: Desert mirage or real Derby deal?

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

Mendelssohn_by_DRC_Andrew_Watkins
Mendelssohn, with Ryan Moore riding, left the rest of the field more than 18 lengths in his dust last week in the UAE Derby, sending his odds lower for next month's Kentucky Derby. (Photo by Andrew Watkins courtesy of the Dubai Racing Club.)

Las Vegas

Many years ago a wise man by the name of Musburger offered me some sage advice.

“Flatterman,” he said, “never look back. Always look ahead.”

We were discussing a script for a radio commentary back then, but it may as well have been this column. The simple moral is that we cannot bet on what has already happened.

Sometimes, though, I can’t help myself. Take last weekend, when I saw headlines that Mendelssohn, the runaway winner of the UAE Derby, would be the favorite for next month’s Kentucky Derby. That sent me running and screaming into what seemed like a black hole where common sense went to die.

“What are you thinking? Are you that attracted to a shiny object?” Alas, my words fell like the tree in that unoccupied forest.

Here we are on the eve of three of the most important preps for the Kentucky Derby (scroll down; I get to them), and climactic futures bets are being skewed by what happened half a planet and another world away. Just look at what came out of the Westgate SuperBook. When it made Mendelssohn a 5-1 favorite this week in its first posting of Derby futures, it was as if cymbals crashed.

“We got some odds this late by using some European books to take prices from,” Westgate oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said.

It’s true. Every major bookmaker across the pond has Mendelssohn at 5-1 with the exception of 10Bet, which has him at 9-2, and BetVictor, which lowered him to 4-1. Never mind that U.S. bettors will be able to get a much better pari-mutuel price on race day. There is now a symbolic queue at European windows – and by extension at the Westgate – that looks a lot from here like lemmings.

So don’t tell Brent, but I am breaking his rule. I feel duty-bound to talk everyone off the ledge by, yes, looking back.

First, Mendelssohn’s victory came in a prep race that has never produced anything better than a fifth-place horse out of the 13 that have come from Dubai to Kentucky.

“Yeah, but this is different.”

I know. I hear that refrain every year from Dubai around the same time as I read those banal “on pace for 162” Twitter posts on baseball’s opening day. That they happen around the same time of year is a classic example of repetitive insanity.

The most commonly heard reason for saying that Mendelssohn – this year’s version of “this” – really is different is that he obliterated the 9½-furlong track record at Meydan. Whoa. A record on a track that is eight years old that annually hosts only 20 days of racing?

But even taking that at face value it was hardly exceptional. Broken track records were as common last weekend in Dubai as hot days. There were three on the dirt track in one night, so this was not exactly like UMBC’s win over Virginia.

Mendelssohn also pounced on a speed-favoring course, thus maintaining his perfect record of never being hit in the face with so much as one speck of dirt in seven career starts. OK, he has raced just the one time on dirt, but that only broadens this indictment.

Even if there is a similar speed bias at Churchill Downs next month, he will not be alone on the lead. Promises Fulfilled showed last week in his Florida Derby defeat that he is capable of producing unfathomably blazing fractions that will manufacture all sorts of nostril-ready loam for his rivals – including Mendelssohn.

Finally, as Ryan Moore curiously kept whipping and scrubbing Mendelssohn until the last 120 yards last week, he opened up a deceptively and unnecessarily big lead on a field that was rated inferior even before the race – with the exception of Gold Town, which had beaten up on a ho-hum Group 3 field in early March.

The Beyer Speed Figures, which some flippantly see as biased toward eastern horses, went über-east to inflate Mendelssohn to a 106. Mind you there is normally no formal BSF assigned to any performance in the UAE Derby. So how now?

In short the mismatch was misleading enough. The breathless reaction to it only heightened that false impression.

“That track was pretty souped up, but he just buried it,” said Johnny Avello, the boss at the Wynn who has no peer in Las Vegas when it comes to handicapping the horses. He shortened Mendelssohn to comparatively reasonable 12-1 as compared with his favorite Justify at 6-1. “We’ve had good action on Mendelssohn not just to win the Kentucky Derby but to win the Triple Crown (now 75-1). They liked him even before the race. That race just put the exclamation point on him.”

To be fair Mendelssohn is not some flash in the dirt from Europe. He was sired by Scat Daddy, the 2007 Florida Derby winner that was eventually bought by the Irish mega-stable Coolmore to be a stallion. He is also a half-brother to four-time Eclipse-winning mare Beholder. Coolmore bought him 1½ years ago for $3 million at Keeneland, the most expensive yearling sold in 2016.

Rather than keep him in America, trainer Aidan O’Brien raced Mendelssohn last year in Europe, winning only once in four turf races as a 2-year-old. But a runner-up finish in the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket last October was reason enough for O’Brien to send Mendelssohn back to America, where he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last November at Del Mar. Then came last month’s victory in the Patton Stakes – a Derby prep on the all-weather track at Dundalk, Ireland – which led to last weekend’s swoon-inducing performance in his dirt debut.

Mendelssohn’s last three races were successfully ridden by Ryan Moore, who may be the best jockey in the world, but his pedigree is almost all turf. He has had only 13 dirt races in the U.S. and has never hit the board; his best finish was fourth on The Great War in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.

Have I made my point yet? Obviously not enough to keep European bettors from taking the plunge on Mendelssohn at 5-1. And not enough to keep the Westgate from putting up that same price while its competitor on the Strip kept him at more realistic odds. Then again, there may be more to that side of the story.

“You have to remember that Johnny has a lot of exposure right now from taking bets all winter, especially on Justify and Bolt d’Oro,” said one Las Vegas bookmaker who does not have a dog – or a horse – in this fight. “The Westgate can afford to have higher prices on more worthy favorites right now, because they don't have as much to lose.”

But I can only twist arms so hard. I cannot go to the whip all the way to finish here the way Moore practically did. If Mendelssohn wins or even hits the board in the Kentucky Derby – and in so doing proves me to be loud wrong – then all the power to all the bettors who should load me up with I told you sos.

Rest assured. If and when a UAE Derby horse ever wins the Kentucky Derby, it will be a great story. But it will be told without so much as one cent of my money on him.

Baffert dominos fall before weekend preps

When trainer Bob Baffert announced that Los Alamitos Futurity winner McKinzie was hurt, that created a ripple effect that impacted what will be the biggest weekend of 3-year-old preps ahead of the Kentucky Derby.

McKinzie was supposed to be rematched for potentially another thrilling stretch duel with disputed San Felipe Stakes winner Bolt d’Oro in Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. But now he seems unlikely to race in anything called “Derby” this spring.

“The X-rays were all clean,” Baffert said. “He did something in his hock, and the nuke scan lit up in that area, so I think he jammed it. We’re just being very cautious. Whatever is going on there, just let it heal up on its own. So there is nothing we can do. Just wait.”

Baffert’s ultra-talented allowance winner Justify takes McKinzie’s place in the Santa Anita Derby. Solomini, originally pointed to Saturday’s $750,000 Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, will go instead next weekend to the Arkansas Derby. Baffert shipped maiden winner Restoring Hope to race in the Wood.

With Solomini out of the Wood, the Godolphin-owned Gotham winner Enticed (6-5) takes over as the morning-line favorite. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and already qualified for Kentucky, the colt sired by Medaglia d’Oro will be tested by Restoring Hope (4-1), Tampa Bay disappointment Vino Rosso (9-2), Jerome winner Firenze Fire (6-1) and front-running Gotham runner-up Old Time Revival (6-1). With a cloudy, 44-degree day forecast in New York, the Wood starts at 5:55 p.m. EDT Saturday.

Morning snow showers are predicted Saturday for Keeneland, where the $1 million Grade 2 Blue Grass attracted a full field of 14 led by last year’s 2-year-old champion Good Magic (2-1). In his 2018 debut he finished a distant third as the favorite in last month’s Fountain of Youth and may still need at least a fourth-place finish to be assured a spot at Churchill Downs. Trained by Chad Brown and ridden by José Ortiz, he will be challenged by Free Drop Billy (5-1), which is 2-for-2 on wet tracks. Front-running Quip (6-1), pace-chasing Flameaway (6-1) and speed horse Sporting Chance (10-1) are also entered. The Blue Grass starts at 6:23 p.m. EDT Saturday.

Justify (4-5) and Bolt d’Oro (6-5) appear to be in a class of their own against five others in the Santa Anita Derby. Justify has won his two races by an average of 7½ lengths. Since this is his stakes debut he needs a top-two finish to avoid being shut out of Kentucky. Lecomte winner Instilled Regard (5-1) will join Justify and Bolt in chasing the early lead likely to be held by Doug O’Neill-trained maiden Jimmy Chila (30-1). Partly cloudy weather is forecast for southern California for the Santa Anita Derby, which starts at 6:30 p.m. EDT Saturday.

VSiN senior writer and racing handicapper Dave Tuley has his takes and tips for Saturday’s preps on line at VSiN.com.

Racing notes and opinions

No sooner were morning lines posted for the fourth and final Kentucky Derby Future Wager than a suspension was announced on betting for Mississippi. Trainer Mark Casse said he was aiming the Coolmore-owned colt for the Pat Day Mile instead of the Kentucky Derby. The maiden winner finished third last week in the Florida Derby, had a 50-1 morning line for the KDFW and was 65-1 at the Wynn. Bolt d’Oro is the 5-1 favorite for the KDFW, which runs through 6 p.m. EDT Sunday.

Hazel Park, the only thoroughbred racecourse operating in Michigan, was suddenly and permanently closed Thursday after 69 years in business. A news release said that owners Bernard Hartman and Herbert Tyner had an agreement to sell off the assets of the suburban Detroit track, but there were no other details mentioned. The annual Hazel Park meet was scheduled to begin May 4, and trainers had begun getting their barns ready to move in their horses. Then a notice was posted on the windows of the main entrance saying that the track was out of business. The only horse-racing course left in Michigan is Northville Downs, a harness track 30 miles west of Detroit.

Wintertime betting on racing was up 6 percent over the same time last year, Equibase said in its quarterly Thoroughbred Racing Economic Indicators. Total U.S. and Canada handle rose to $2,627,307,511 in January, February and March. Purses were also up nearly 6 percent to $244,977,709. All this came despite a 3 percent drop in the number of races to 7,293. Some racing analysts are crediting this year’s lowering of the tax rate on race winnings, although an improved overall economy probably didn’t hurt.

The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund will hold a fund-raising telethon Sunday on TVG. Current and former jockeys will be answering phones to take pledges from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. EDT. Viewers may call (844) 884-7353 to make tax-deductible donations to the PDJF, which helps close to 60 ex-jockeys pay their bills after they suffered serious injuries in track accidents. Simply put, this is a good, worthy cause.

This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition includes previews of the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. The guests are Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Wood Memorial favorite Enticed, and Mike Watchmaker, handicapper from the Daily Racing Form. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.

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