“Lightning never strikes twice in the same place.” Apply this axiom to trainer John Shirreffs, and he will prove you wrong. He is riding high these days with not one, but two horses hot on the Kentucky Derby trail. Gormley and Royal Mo, two bay colts owned by Jerry and Ann Moss of Zenyatta fame, are headed for a rendezvous in Louisville the first Saturday in May, barring any bumps in a road that is proverbially pitted with potholes.
Royal Mo took center stage on Saturday following his domineering win in the 1 1/16-mile Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park, reigniting the hope kindled by Gormley one month ago with his victory in the Sham Stakes. Post-race, Jerry Moss revealed that he’d had two human “Uncle Mos” in his life, and that he was thrilled with the result of the Robert B. Lewis. When asked if he might be harboring dreams for a double Derby entry, he replied with relish that “two entries in the Derby would be amazing and incredible!”
Royal Mo’s purchase price at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale was at least double that of Gormley's, with the hammer falling at $300,000. By the impressively productive Uncle Mo out of the Saint Ballado mare Royal Irish Lass, the colt stands a hair under 17 hands and is growing. Royal Mo made his first start last August at Del Mar, finishing second by three-quarters of a length. On the day after the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, he made his second start, again finishing second. Royal Mo broke his maiden on the third try during the autumn meeting at Del Mar, beating the field by 1 ¼ lengths. He returned to the races in stellar style on Saturday following a two-month absence, showing bull dog tenacity in fending off the determined efforts of Irap, who hounded him from the far turn to mid-stretch, when he finally folded under Royal Mo’s refusal to quit.
Jockey Victor Espinoza offered his insights after the race. “He’s such a big horse, he doesn’t have that quickness for the first couple of strides. As soon as he gets into rhythm, though, he’ll keep going. He’s improving a lot. From the last few races to this race, he’s really coming along. He’s going in the right direction. Hopefully, we keep going that way.”
John Shirreffs, a man who parses his words as carefully as he tends his four-legged charges, was “very happy with how he ran, the pace, the fractions, having that horse (Irap) hooking him a little bit. I think he showed a lot of character.”
Gormley, the other half of the Derby dream duo, is a compact, muscular colt with a blaze that trails down his face like a wayward drip of paint. The Zenyatta team, who has an eye for a bargain (witness the $60,000 pricetag for Zenyatta), purchased the son of Malibu Moon out of stakes winner Race to Urga privately at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, when he failed to make the $150,000 reserve. He was subsequently sent to the McKathan Brothers Training Center in central Florida to learn his ABCs and returned to the Shirreffs stable stronger and smarter with a solid appetite for training.
Gormley has won three of four starts, one of which was the FrontRunner Stakes in only his second time out of the box. His sole defeat was a seventh-place finish in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, after bobbling at the start and stalking the leaders four wide throughout most of the race. Unlike Royal Mo’s daylight win in the Robert B. Lewis, Gormley gritted out a head victory in his last start in the one-mile Sham Stakes in January, waging a ferocious battle in the slop with a determined American Anthem.
Following the fireworks, Jerry Moss, whose passion for racing has not diminished over the years, enthused, "This type of thing never gets old. He’s got lot of heart and I know he’ll go further than this. John’s doing all the right things, as usual. This was a beautiful horse race and the fans got a thriller.”
John Shirreffs, smiling broadly, looked as if the win more than made up for any Breeders’ Cup disappointment. “That was a great race. He’s still young. You never know what they’re going to do, so it’s always interesting. We’re very proud of him.”
Gormley has earned 20 Derby points, which puts him in the top level of present qualifiers.
What about the immediate future? Will the colts cross paths before a possible showdown at Churchill Downs on May 6? Jerry Moss stated that he likes Oaklawn Park, and that after talking with Shirreffs, they may decide to send one horse to Arkansas and keep the other at Santa Anita. In the meantime, their Derby dream will be carried on the wings of two talented 3-year-olds. Maybe lightning will strike twice, remembering that this same team won the 2005 Kentucky Derby with 50-to-1 longshot Giacomo.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” mused Jerry Moss in the winners’ circle following Saturday’s race. “You know, we haven’t had horses like this in quite a while. We develop them young, and it’s fun. We definitely have Derby dreams. We can dream. That’s the whole thing about this game, you dream."