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.
After Mask won the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, the response on social media could not have been more glowing had the mighty Pegasus swooped down from the heavens to join the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve fray. I was similarly impressed by the performance, but keeping in mind this was a non-graded stakes in January, let’s take a closer look at Mask’s chances on the Derby trail.
Ability: A $685,000 purchase out of the first book of the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, which is reserved for the very best horses combining physical conformation and pedigree, Mask was highly regarded before he had even developed into a racehorse.
He lived up to that billing with a three-length debut victory going 6 ½ furlongs at Belmont Park on Oct. 20. He broke a step slowly in that race but recovered nicely to take command in the stretch under Javier Castellano. The win earned Mask a 93 Equibase Speed Figure.
Trainer Chad Brown gave him 2 ½ months off before his second start, but it proved worth the wait. Stretching out to a mile, the bay colt seized the lead early and set a comfortable pace under Castellano. In complete control entering the stretch, he pulled away to win by 6 ¼ lengths as the 7-5 favorite.
Mask covered the final eighth of a mile in 12.38 seconds and the final quarter-mile in 24.73, both very strong for a 3-year-old making his second start in his first try stretching out from a sprint.
“The horse has always trained like he was something special,” Brown said. “He broke much better in his second start and was able to just go to the lead. He had no problem with a mile. The way he ran, it looks like he’ll have no problem with two turns either. Very professional. Second start, he handled himself perfect in the paddock and has a wonderful mind on him. Exciting horse.”
The 102 Equibase Speed Figure marked a nice, incremental improvement with plenty of time to map out an ideal next target race.
“No plans yet. I really wanted to just see what happened today, what he got out of this race, how he handled the mile and everything. So far I couldn’t be more pleased with everything. We’ll see how he comes out of the race and go from there,” Brown said. “I do want to try the horse two turns in his next start and find out where we stand as far as putting him on the Derby trail, but right now he looks like he’s firmly on that path.”
Running style: In his debut, Mask was slow out of the starting gate, relaxed nicely behind horses, and picked up the pace on his jockey’s cue. He looked simply faster than the opposition in the Mucho Macho Man and took it right to his challengers. Brown mentioned (above) that Mask has a “wonderful mind,” which means he very likely is the type of horse who will respond to his jockey and give his rider options in each race. That versatility is very valuable on the Derby trail.
Connections: Lane’s End Racing is the racing branch of leading Central Kentucky Thoroughbred farm Lane’s End, which is owned by Mr. and Mrs. William S. Farish. With more than 2,300 acres in the heart of Bluegrass country, Lane’s End is home to top stallions such as Quality Road, Candy Ride, Lemon Drop Kid, Union Rags, and many more. Farish won the Eclipse Award as outstanding breeder in 1992 and 1999 and the 2009 Eclipse Award of Merit. Farish won the 1972 Preakness with Bee Bee Bee and co-bred 1999 Horse of the Year and dual classic winner Charismatic as well as 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall. Recent Lane’s End Racing standouts include multiple Grade 1 winner Honor Code.
Brown won his first Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer in 2016 and earned his first win in a Triple Crown race in 2017 when Cloud Computing won the Preakness. Brown has won 10 Breeders’ Cup races among 186 career graded stakes wins through Jan. 8. Among those winners is current top Kentucky Derby contender and Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic.
Castellano won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey for the first time in 2013 and then in each of the next three seasons. He won the Preakness in 2006 aboard Bernardini and again in 2017 with Cloud Computing. Castellano has finished second in the Belmont Stakes three times. His 4,820 career victories through Jan. 8 rank 37th all time and he has amassed 383 career graded stakes wins, including eight in the Breeders’ Cup.
Pedigree: If there is an area of concern when evaluating Mask’s chances in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, it is his pedigree, specifically the bottom half.
His dam (mother), Hidden Expression, by sprinter Yonaguska, was a stakes winner at 5 ½ furlongs and never competed in a race longer than three-quarters of a mile.
Mask’s grandam (maternal grandmother), The Hess Express, by sprinter Lord Carson, won five of 13 career races at distances ranging from five-eighths of a mile to 6 ½ furlongs.
On the bright side, The Hess Express was stakes-placed at one mile as a 3-year-old and she produced four stakes winners – Bullsbay was a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles, Our Khrysty was a graded stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles, Vegas No Show was a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles, and the aforementioned Hidden Expression.
Third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Turcomedy, by Turkoman, was a multiple stakes-placed sprinter.