Does Malagacy Have What it Takes to Overcome the ‘Curse of Apollo’?

Racing
Malagacy stretched out in distance successfully when winning the March 18 Rebel Stakes on the road to the Kentucky Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2017 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at Malagacy, winner of the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel Stakes on March 18 at Oaklawn Park.

Malagacy made his first start in a graded stakes and his first race going longer than 6 ½ furlongs on March 18 in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. He passed his first major test on the Triple Crown trail with relative ease, pulling away late to win by two lengths. Having made his first start in January, Malagacy has come a long way in a short amount of time, but he is battling history. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands without a single race as a 2-year-old since Apollo accomplished the feat in 1882. Can Malagacy put an end to the “Curse of Apollo”? Let’s take a look.

MALAGACY

Chestnut Colt

Sire (Father): Shackleford

Dam (Mother): Classiest Gem, by Dehere

Owner: Sumaya U.S. Stable

Breeder: John Trumbulovic (Ky.)

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Kentucky Derby Points: 50 (Ranked No. 4)

Ability:  Bloodstock agent Steven Young purchased Malagacy for $190,000 at the 2016 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale of 2-year-olds in training on behalf of his current owner. He’s earned $586,800 with three wins in as many starts, with each of his three victories coming by at least two lengths.

Malagacy made a splashy debut on Jan. 4 at Gulfstream Park when he rolled to a 15-length romp in a 5 ½-furlong sprint on a sloppy track. He followed with a seven-length runaway on a fast track at Gulfstream going 6 ½ furlongs on Feb. 12. Both victories were visually impressive, and he earned a 104 Equibase Speed Figure for his debut and a 111 for his second start, which further established Malagacy as a fast racehorse with a bright future.

Added distance and quality of competition loomed as major hurdles entering the Rebel, but Malagacy took control in the Oaklawn Park stretch and pulled away from 10 opponents to a two-length win with a final sixteenth of a mile in 6.20 seconds.

Purely from a raw-ability perspective, Malagacy looks like a serious racehorse. The 106 Equibase Speed Figure he earned for the Rebel was a small step back, but for a 3-year-old stretching out in distance for the first time, it was not a big surprise. More importantly, he handled shipping to a new racetrack, navigating two turns and being challenged (briefly) in the stretch.

Other speed-figure makers were not quite as impressed. Malagacy earned an uninspiring 91 Beyer Speed Figure, and his 113 TimeForm rating was slower than the six most recent Kentucky Derby trail race winners.

Running style: Malagacy has the speed to be on or near the lead whether sprinting or stretching out around two turns, but he showed in his second race a real willingness to rate behind the pace and wait for his cue to accelerate. He fired right out of the starting gate in the Rebel for jockey Javier Castellano and established an ideal position, before settling into a relaxed rhythm just behind pacesetter Uncontested. Malagacy appeared very comfortable and content racing about a length behind Uncontested until Castellano called on him on the far turn, and he put away Uncontested with a nice burst at the top of the stretch. Malagacy’s rateable speed is a very valuable asset.

Connections: Sumaya U.S. Stable is the racing operation of Oussama Aboughazale, who lives in Santiago, Chile and is a perennial leading owner in that country. He named the stable after his mother, Sumaya. The Aboughazale family made its fortune in agriculture and is the majority shareholder of the fresh produce division of Del Monte Fruit Co.

Other U.S.-based top runners for Sumaya U.S. Stable include multiple graded stakes winners Wild Spirit, Newfoundland, Isola Piu Bella and Protonico.

Todd Pletcher has won seven Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer and is the all-time leading trainer by career purse earnings with more than $333.3 million. He served as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas before venturing out on his own in 1996. Pletcher has won three Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver, the Belmont Stakes with Rags to Riches in 2007, and the 2013 Belmont Stakes with Palace Malice.

Malagacy and Javier Castellano (Eclipse Sportswire)

Jockey Javier Castellano has been aboard for each of Malagacy’s three races. He has swept the last four Eclipse Awards as outstanding jockey and has led all jockeys by purse earnings in each of those years (2013 through 2016). Castellano’s lone win in a Triple Crown race to date came aboard Bernardini in the 2006 Preakness Stakes. He has finished second three times in the Belmont Stakes and has seven Breeders’ Cup victories to his credit.

Pedigree: Malagacy is from the first crop of 2011 Preakness Stakes winner Shackleford, who boasted elite speed and the ability to carry it going longer distances. Malagacy is the second graded stakes winner for his sire.

Malagacy’s dam (mother), Classiest Gem, is by 1991 champion 2-year-old male Dehere. She is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to 2010 Canadian champion older female Impossible Time, a multiple stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles who was stakes-placed at 1 ¼ miles. Classiest Gem was unraced, as was Malagacy’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Classiest Carat, by stamina influence Pleasant Colony.

Malagacy’s third dam (maternal great-great grandmother), Halo Dancer, was multiple stakes-placed in races ranging from seven-eighths of a mile to 1 1/16 miles.

There is much to like about Malagacy. He’s naturally fast and talented, and he’s mature enough to handle shipping from Florida to Hot Springs, Ark., to win his graded stakes debut in a tough spot on the Kentucky Derby trail.

However, I am concerned about his ability to beat elite 3-year-olds going 1 ¼ miles on the first Saturday in May given some stamina questions with Malagacy’s pedigree and the fact that he did not make his debut until January. If he was targeting the Preakness Stakes, I’d be really excited about his chances, but the Kentucky Derby is an entirely different beast, especially for a horse whose been racing competitively for less than three months.

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