There are clearly lessons Magnum Moon still needs to learn, as evidenced by the fact that as he reached the Oaklawn Park stretch in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 14, both his focus and his stride started to noticeably wander.
The fact the son of Malibu Moon looked every bit like the novice he still is while never once looking like he was in danger of losing, however, was the most noteworthy part of where the Todd Pletcher trainee stands in terms of his development.
In a barn already bursting with top contenders for the first leg of the Triple Crown, it is the colt who didn’t even start his career until January that now sits in the catbird seat with an unblemished record and abundance of qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Despite facing pressure from Quip on the front end and then drifting out several paths in the lane, Robert and Lawana Low’s Magnum Moon proved much the best with a gate-to-wire, four-length victory in the $1 million Arkansas Derby.
After picking up the 100 qualifying points bestowed to the winner in Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile test, Magnum Moon now sits atop the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 150 points total. Considering how green he was still acting in the stretch, one could argue that if the bay colt gets his mind completely right by May 5, he could the top dog in a Pletcher armada that also includes Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Audible, Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner Vino Rosso, and Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby victor Noble Indy.
“I thought [his race] was very good,” said Pletcher, whose charges occupy four of the top five positions on the points standings. “Very pleased with the outcome. [I was] a little concerned that he drifted out the last part, but it looked like he sort of halfway thought about jumping over the tire marks when he went the by the eighth pole where the gate was and sort of skipped over those.
“I think he was maybe just drifting away from that. Aside from that, I thought he finished with good energy and was pulling away from some nice horses.”
Unraced as a juvenile, Magnum Moon began his assault on the so-called “Curse of Apollo” — which references the fact no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without a start as a 2-year-old — when he broke his maiden at first asking at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 13. Following an allowance win at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 15, Magnum Moon let it be known he was a legit contender in a 3-year-old class packed with talent when he captured the March 17, Grade 2 Rebel Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths over Grade 1-placed Solomini.
Even with Solomini back in for the Arkansas Derby and graded stakes winner Quip shipping in for his first try in a top-level test, Magnum Moon was sent off as the clear 4-5 favorite in the nine-horse field Saturday. Jockey Luis Saez said it wasn’t necessarily the plan to go the lead, but his mount took him there when he broke sharply out of post-position six and outfought Quip for the advantage going into the first turn.
“I thought there was going to be a little speed,” Saez said. “We were in a good position he broke really sharp. I’m not going to choke him I am just going to stay there and he was very comfortable into the turn he was traveling pretty good. When I came to the stretch, I felt like he was looking at the gate marks so when we got there I touched him a little and he went on.”
Quip stayed right off Magnum Moon’s neck through quarter-mile fractions of :23.34 and :48.60 and had drawn about on even terms with the pacesetter as they rounded the far turn. Combatant and Solomini tried to join the fight with three- and four-wide moves, respectively, but Magnum Moon made all those challenges futile ones as he reached the stretch.
“He had me worried to death when I saw we were on the lead. But Luis [Saez] gave him a masterful ride,” Robert Low said.
Added Pletcher: “He showed his versatility. He’s won a number of different ways now, and I think he’s proven that he’s the kind of horse that doesn’t need the race to unfold a certain way, that he’s able to kind of make his own race.”
Magnum Moon covered the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:49.86 on a track rated fast with Quip holding on for place money. Solomini, who needed a top-three finish to ensure he had enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field, got his head down over Combatant for third despite not switching leads in the stretch.
“He didn’t break as sharply as we would have liked. He was third best today,” said Justin Zayat of Zayat Stables, which co-owns Solomini. “The winner is a really nice horse. We’ll talk to [trainer] Bob [Baffert], but I thought it was a good race and now it’s on to Kentucky."
Bred by Ramona Bass out of the Unbridled’s Song mare Dazzling Song, Magnum Moon bolstered his earnings to $1,177,800 while remaining unbeaten in four starts. He was purchased by the Lows for $380,000 out of the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.