Can Magnum Moon End the ‘Curse of Apollo’?

Magnum Moon improved his career record to three wins without a defeat with a 3 ½-length score in the March 17 Rebel Stakes. (Coady Photography)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2018 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key 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 Magnum Moon, winner of the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel Stakes on March 17 at Oaklawn Park.

Over the last 10 days we’ve heard quite a bit of speculation about whether this would be the year that a 3-year-old overcame the “Curse of Apollo” – no 2-year-old has won the Kentucky Derby without a race as a 2-year-old since Apollo accomplished the feat in 1882. Until Saturday, much of that conversation revolved around highly regarded Justify, but in the Rebel Stakes Magnum Moon stepped forward as another talented 3-year-old who did not race at two and has a serious chance to win the 2018 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.

Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard

magnum moon

Bay Colt

Sire (Father): Malibu Moon

Dam (Mother): Dazzling Song, by Unbridled's Song

Owners: Robert and Lawana Low

Breeder: Ramona Bass (Ky.)

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Ability: A $380,000 purchase by owners Lawana and Robert Low at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, Magnum Moon made his career debut on Jan. 13 at Gulfstream Park and won a three-quarter-mile sprint by 4 ½ lengths. He earned a stellar 106 Equibase Speed Figure for his debut, which stamped him one to watch in the 3-year-old division.

“We always thought a lot of him, from early on when was at my dad's training center as a yearling and as a 2-year-old,” trainer Todd Pletcher said after the colt’s Rebel Stakes win.

Rather than push the gas pedal to the floor and enter Magnum Moon in stakes competition, Pletcher took a somewhat conservative route and entered the Malibu Moon colt in an allowance/optional claiming race at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 15. The race was a nice learning experience for Magnum Moon, as he rated off the pace in fourth early in the five-horse field before overwhelming the competition late in a two-length win that set him up for a start in the Rebel.

“We’d been communicating with Todd where he was. We were confident, but nervous,” co-owner Robert Low said. “We knew he had him ready for the race.”

Magnum Moon exceeded expectations in the Rebel, pulling away impressively in the stretch after stalking the pace and rolling to a 3 ½-length win over what was considered a deep, talented field. He completed his final sixteenth of a mile in 6.29 seconds and earned a new career-best 109 Equibase Speed Figure. That puts him within striking distance of the 118 earned by both Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes last week. The Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form was a solid 97, Brisnet gave him a 100, and the Timeform Figure (121) was tied for third overall since the start of the year in Road to the Kentucky Derby points races, trailing only McKinzie (124) and Bolt d’Oro (123).

“There's nothing like seeing it actually happen. You can always prepare for it and hope for it and all that. It's still up to the horse to go there out and prove it,” Pletcher said after the Rebel.

Pletcher said Magnum Moon probably will make his final start before the Kentucky Derby in the Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby on April 14.

Let’s talk about the concern that a horse lacking the foundation that comes with racing at two might could come up short in the Kentucky Derby. It is legitimate as evidenced by both Bodemeister (2012) and Curlin (2007) coming up short, as has every other unraced 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.

With Magnum Moon, I’m encouraged by the fact that, like Bodemeister and Curlin, he will have two prep races in graded stakes before the Kentucky Derby. Both of them very well could have won the Derby with a little luck – less early speed for Bodemeister and a better trip for Curlin, who also happened to be part of a powerful group of 3-year-olds that season.

The way racehorses are prepared for the Triple Crown trail has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. It used to be common beliefs that horses needed at least three prep races during the calendar year of their Kentucky Derby and couldn’t win the run for the roses with more than four weeks rest. Both of those notions fell by the wayside. Now many trainers prefer two prep races and at least five weeks before the Derby, and one year soon a horse who was unraced at two will win the Kentucky Derby … but it will take a special horse.

Running style: After flashing early speed in his debut, Magnum Moon really learned to rate in his second start and he showed that again in the Rebel. He’s a 3-year-old with terrific natural speed that he uses to his advantage. I’d guess he could lead from start to finish in an important stakes race if no other horse wanted the lead, but it does look like his ideal setup is to race just off the pace and make his move approaching the stretch.

Connections: Robert and Lawana Low own Magnum Moon, who would be the couple’s second Kentucky Derby starter after they finished third with Steppenwolfer in the 2006 Kentucky Derby. The Lows also raced graded stakes winners Green Fee and Real Cozzy.

Robert Low founded the trucking company Prime Inc. in 1970 as a 19-year-old engineering student at the University of Missouri. The company has grown through the years from a one-truck business to more than 6,800 trucks and 12,800 trailers.

Trainer Todd Pletcher won his second Kentucky Derby in 2017 with Always Dreaming after winning the race in 2010 with Super Saver. Pletcher also has won the Belmont Stakes three times (Tapwrit, 2017; Palace Malice, 2013; Rags to Riches, 2007) and finished second twice in the Kentucky Derby and five times in the Belmont Stakes. The seven-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer and former assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has amassed 151 Grade 1 wins among 657 graded stakes victories since going out on his own in 1996.

Luis Saez has won 1,879 races, including 165 graded stakes, since taking out his jockey’s license in 2009, according to Equineline statistics through March 19. He has seven Grade 1 wins to date, most recently winning the Hopeful Stakes with Sporting Chance. Saez, who is winless with five starters in the Kentucky Derby, opted to ride Magnum Moon over Sporting Chance in the Rebel.

Pedigree: Magnum Moon is from the 15th crop of Malibu Moon, who is best known as the sire of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb and 2004 champion 2-year-old male Declan’s Moon. Other notable Grade 1 winners include 2017 Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley, Life At Ten, Carina Mia, Devil May Care, Funny Moon, Ransom the Moon, and Ask the Moon. After winning one of two races in an abbreviated career, Malibu Moon has developed into a versatile stallion capable of siring sprinters and route horses among 47 group or graded stakes winners to date.

Magnum Moon is out of the unraced Unbridled’s Song mare Dazzling Song. His grandam (maternal grandmother) is Grade 3-winning sprinter Win McCool, by Giant’s Causeway, who finished fourth in her only start longer than seven-eighths of a mile.

Magnum Moon’s third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Win Crafty Lady, was a graded-stakes-winning sprinter who also was a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles. In addition to Win McCool, Win Crafty Lady also produced 2000 Arkansas Derby winner and sire Graeme Hall and Grade 1 winner Harmony Lodge. There are a few stamina influences in the bottom half of this pedigree, but I see far more sources of speed.

Magnum Moon sure looked good winning the Rebel Stakes and galloped out powerfully – he looked ready to go around again – so I’m not especially concerned about distance limitations. I know the buzz horse over the last month has been Justify, who improved to 2-for-2 with an allowance win on March 11, but I think if the “Curse of Apollo” is broken this year, it will be Magnum Moon who makes history.

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