To say that Mendelssohn’s arrival at Churchill Downs was noisy would be putting it mildly.
With a cacophony of snorts and whinnies and all imaginable equine onomatopoeia, the UAE Derby winner and the lone overseas entry made a loud first appearance Thursday morning on the track where he and 19 other colts will run Saturday in the 144th Kentucky Derby.
“He’s a screamer,” rival trainer Bob Baffert said. “He’s funny. He does it when he sees humans. As soon as he gets away from people he’s quiet. And once they put blinkers on him (for races) he doesn’t do that.”
Baffert, who trains Derby favorite Justify (3-1 morning line, 2-1 Wynn Las Vegas) and long shot Solomini (30-1, 30-1), had more to say about Mendelssohn (5-1, 6-1) than Mendelssohn’s assistant trainer Pat Keating. For that matter, even Mendelssohn had more to say than Keating.
“He just done a very gentle exercise around the track,” Keating said of Mendelssohn’s jog and walk. “Very short and very sweet. He’s a straightforward horse. He handles (travel) a lot better than I do.”
The soft-spoken Keating arrived Monday from the Coolmore stable in Ireland to look after Mendelssohn’s nearly three days in quarantine. His boss Aidan O’Brien will be at the track Friday for Keating said would be another jog and walk – even if it is noisier than he is.
The bigger question and perhaps the source of most debates about the Derby is whether Mendelssohn will parlay his jaw-dropping, 18-length victory in late March into a first-ever Kentucky Derby win for a horse coming out the UAE Derby. Or with jockey Ryan Moore, who is 0-for-14 on U.S. dirt, will he add to the 13 Middle East disappointments that have never done better than fifth at Churchill Downs?
One difference with Mendelssohn is that he was not born on foreign soil. A half-brother to four-time Eclipse-winning mare Beholder, he was actually bred here in Kentucky, one of four horses in this year’s Derby sired by the late stallion Scat Daddy.
“We were expecting a whole lot from him,” said Fred Mitchell, who bred Mendelssohn at his Clarkland Farm near Lexington. “He looked like a classy horse (as a yearling). Beholder and Mendelssohn looked so much alike. They weren’t big foals. They didn’t start maturing until we started prepping them for the September sale. He looked like a classy horse then.”
One question is whether he will be able to stay clear of a face full of dirt if he does not get clean air from the start of what will be only his second dirt race. It is a question that might also face Justify, a colt that did not have his first race until Feb. 18, seven months after Mendelssohn made his debut on Irish turf.
“It’s all about the break,” Baffert said. “First jump, man. He needs that. They all need it.”
With jockey Mike Smith having more to do with that – and not until post time – Baffert said the rest of Justify’s preparations have been decidedly unspectacular. If not for a few raindrops Thursday and the threat of a thunderstorm for Oaks Day on Friday, it would be perfect.
“The weather has been really pretty good,” Baffert said. “The track is nice and soft. It’s good. Rain is this track’s friend. Too much rain? We just don’t want any ‘tornaduhs.’”
Otherwise, Baffert said, “Everything’s going quiet and smooth.”
At least until Mendelssohn arrived.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every day this Kentucky Derby week at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. Wednesday’s pop-up edition is posted with handicappers Dave Tuley of VSiN and Patrick McQuiggan of the South Point race book in Las Vegas. On the normal Friday edition, NBC Sports host Mike Tirico and Flameaway’s trainer Mark Casse will be the guests. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.