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.
Royal Mo made his stakes debut a memorable one on Feb. 4 when he led from start to finish to win the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes and stamp himself a Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands contender to watch. Going from a maiden race – a race comprised of horses who had never won before – to a graded stakes is a major jump, so let’s take a closer look at the lightly raced, Southern California-based colt.
Ability: Jerry and Ann Moss, best known as the owners of Hall of Famer Zenyatta, purchased Royal Mo for $300,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. Although he lost his first two races, Royal Mo showed plenty of promise. He finished second in a three-quarter-mile sprint in his career debut in August at Del Mar and was beaten by less than a length. He then got off to a terrible start going seven-eighths of a mile in November at Santa Anita Park, dropping more than 13 lengths back, and rallied gamely for second. He earned an 81 Equibase Speed Figure for his debut and a 91 for his second start, so it was no surprise that Royal Mo was sent off as the 4-5 favorite for his third race on Nov. 27 at Del Mar. Royal Mo lived up to expectations with a front-running 1 ½-length win in the one-mile race and earned a 104 Equibase Speed Figure.
Trainer John Shirreffs next opted to test Royal Mo in stakes competition and he again led from start to finish in a five-horse field to win the Robert B. Lewis Stakes going away by 3 ½ lengths. His steady progression continued with a 107 Equibase Speed Figure for his first try at 1 1/16 miles.
Royal Mo appears to be learning with experience and getting faster in the process, which is a terrific sign moving forward.
Running style: Royal Mo has led from start to finish in his two victories. Like his sire, Uncle Mo, he’s naturally fast, and he’s shown the ability to relax on the lead. The poor start in his second race also might have served as a good learning experience for him; Royal Mo trailed the 12-horse field early but was not discouraged and battled on for second. He doesn’t strike me as a need-the-lead type, but looks like a horse who is often simply faster than the opposition and capable of using his speed to his advantage. I’d love to see him stalk or press a faster pace and win, but at this point I feel pretty confident that he can do that if and when he’s asked.
Connections: Owners Jerry and Ann Moss also own 2017 Derby hopeful Gormley, who won the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes at age 2 and the Grade 3 Sham Stakes on Jan. 7. The Mosses are well known in horse racing as the owners of 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta and 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.
Jerry Moss founded A&M Records along with Herb Alpert and together they grew that record label into the world’s largest independent record company, credited with launching the careers of stars such as Cat Stevens, Carole King, Janet Jackson, The Police, Sting, Peter Frampton, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach and Soundgarden. Moss and Alpert were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
Trainer John Shirreffs served in the Marine Corps and is a Vietnam War veteran. He settled in California after serving the country and carved out a nice spot in horse racing’s record books by training the aforementioned Zenyatta and Giacomo as well as 2009 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Life Is Sweet. Eighty-six of Shirreffs' 464 career wins have come in graded stakes and his other top runners include Grade 1 winners Manistique, Starrer, Hollywood Story, Tarlow, Tiago, After Market, Harmonious, Nereid and Star Billing.
Victor Espinoza has been aboard Royal Mo for all four of his races. Espinoza was the regular rider of 2015 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year American Pharoah and well as 2014 Derby-Preakness winner and two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome. Espinoza, who has won more than 3,300 races in his career, also guided War Emblem to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2002 and competed, briefly, on the 2015 season of “Dancing With the Stars.”
Pedigree: Royal Mo’s sire, Uncle Mo, dazzled on the racetrack and similarly has impressed thus far in his second career at stud with 14 graded stakes winners among 26 stakes winners from only two crops age 3 and older. Nyquist, from Uncle Mo’s first crop, won the Eclipse Award as 2015 champion 2-year-old male and went on to win the 2016 Kentucky Derby by Yum! Brands.
The leading first-crop sire of 2015 and second-crop sire of 2016, Uncle Mo is blitzing his second career much as he did his first on the racetrack, and his top runners have his powerful combination of speed and stamina. Remsen Stakes winner and Derby hopeful Mo Town also is by Uncle Mo.
Royal Mo is a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to Tara From the Cape, a stakes winner at 7 ½ furlong who was stakes placed at 1 1/16 miles. His dam, Royal Irish Lass, by Saint Ballado, was winless in six attempts but all of her starts came in races that were one mile or longer. Her two top-three finishes were a second at 1 1/8 miles and a third at 1 ¼ miles.
Royal Mo’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Irish Linnet, was a Grade 2 winner at 1 ¼ miles. She won three graded stakes among 13 stakes victories, including five straight editions of the 1 1/8-mile Yaddo Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, and earned $1,220,180 in six seasons. After her retirement, Irish Linnet produced seven winners from nine starters, including a pair of stakes winners.
Uncle Mo should certainly provide speed and it looks like Royal Mo gets a nice boost of stamina from the bottom half of his pedigree. Combine that with steady improvement and capable connections and you have a pretty potent threat for the Triple Crown trail. The quality of competition in the Robert B. Lewis seems very suspect to me, but other than that there is much to like here.