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.
When Bob Baffert ships a 3-year-old from Southern California to Oaklawn Park for a Kentucky Derby prep race, it is worthy of attention. Since 2010, Baffert has won the Southwest Stakes four times (Super Ninety Nine, 2013; Castaway, 2012 [split in two divisions]; Secret Circle, 2012 [split in two divisions]; Conveyance, 2010), the Rebel Stakes six times (Cupid, 2016; American Pharoah, 2015; Hoppertunity, 2014; Secret Circle, 2012; The Factor, 2011; Lookin At Lucky, 2010), and the Arkansas Derby twice (American Pharoah, 2015; Bodemeister, 2012). Based upon some of the names on the above lists, Baffert-trained winners of Derby preps at Oaklawn have a pretty good chance of developing into serous racehorses, so let’s take a closer look at this year’s Smarty Jones Stakes winner, Mourinho.
Ability: Kerri Radcliffe of Phoenix Thoroughbreds purchased Mourinho for $625,000 at the 2017 OBS March sale of 2-year-olds in training. He made his debut six months later for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and won by 4 ½ lengths going three-quarters of a mile at Santa Anita Park on Sept. 30, earning an eye-opening 95 Equibase Speed Figure for his debut. The third-place finisher from that race, Instilled Regard, came back to finish second in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity and win the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes.
Heavily favored for his stakes debut in his second start, Mourinho dueled for the lead through a blistering opening quarter-mile in :21.32 and faded late to finish second in the Speakeasy Stakes after leading by three in early stretch.
Baffert stretched Mourinho out an extra eighth of a mile for the seven-furlong Bob Hope Stakes on Nov. 11 at Del Mar, and he tried a new tactic by removing his blinkers and taking him off the pace. Greyvitos led from start to finish to win the Grade 3 race with Mourinho 1 ½ lengths back in second and 7 ¾ lengths clear of Speakeasy Stakes winner Beautiful Shot, who was third. While that defeat might have seemed to be a bit of a disappointment for the 13-10 favorite, Mourinho earned a new career-top 104 Equibase Speed Figure and the result was flattered when Greyvitos cam back to win the Remington Springboard Mile Stakes, a points race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
“We took the blinkers off to get him to relax a little bit, but it was too much,” Baffert said. “He was too relaxed. Going seven-eighths, the horse sort of got away from going there and he was sort of like lost.”
Jockey Drayden Van Dyke recommended putting the blinkers back on for the Smarty Jones. The bay colt seized command from the start as the 3-5 favorite, opened a clear-and-comfortable lead through an easy half-mile in :48.09, and coasted to a 3 ¼-length victory.
“I think these horses, when you start stretching them out going further, they don’t go as fast, so they’re not as rank or whatever,” Baffert said. “I think it was just perfect. He just needed a little blinker there, just enough to keep him focused.”
He improved his Equibase Speed Figure to a new top of 107 and, perhaps most promising, completed the final eighth of a mile in 12.35 seconds. With only four starts, he has plenty of room to improve, but he has yet to race beyond a mile. His first try navigating two turns in the Smarty Jones was promising to say the least, but that extra distance is a significant hurdle.
Running style: After taking Mourinho off the pace in the Bob Hope, Baffert and Van Dyke let him roll in the Smarty Jones and saw improved results. While the Bob Hope Stakes probably was a decent learning experience for Mourinho, it also served as a reminder to Baffert to make use of the horse’s best asset.
“He’s a very fast horse,” Baffert said after the Smarty Jones. “He’s very quick. Speed is his weapon. On paper, he looked like the fastest horse. He has that early, that natural speed, so we don’t want to try to take it away from him or anything like that.”
Connections: Kerri Radcliffe, a former equestrian and exercise rider, is racing and bloodstock advisor in the Northern Hemisphere for Phoenix Thoroughbreds, which kicked off a massive spending spree in March 2017 at the 2-year-old sales and operates as a Thoroughbred investment fund.
Radcliffe bought six yearlings for $3.95 million at the 2017 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings and seven at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $6.35 million. According to BloodHorse, Radcliffe purchased 22 horses for $19,220,717 in 2017. The Phoenix Thoroughbreds investment fund was established in Luxembourg and is registered in London.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is probably best known as the trainer of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, but the four-time Eclipse Award winner has 12 victories in Triple Crown races: four Kentucky Derbys, six Preakness wins, and two Belmont Stakes victories. He has won the Breeders’ Cup Classic three times among 14 lifetime Breeders’ Cup wins and also won the Dubai World Cup on three occasions.
Jockey Drayden Van Dyke won the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice rider in 2014. In 2017, he won Grade 1 races aboard It Tiz Well, City of Light, Dream Tree, and Mubtaahij. He has never ridden in the Kentucky Derby.
Pedigree: Mourinho is from the fourth crop of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, who was a Grade 2 winner at 1 1/16 miles as a 2-year-old. He ran third in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby and second in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby before earning his only win as a 3-year-old in the Kentucky Derby.
As a stallion, Super Saver has enjoyed success with champion sprinter Runhappy and Grade 1 winners Competitive Edge and Embellish the Lace among 16 stakes winners from four crops ages three and older.
Mourinho is the second stakes winner produced by Sandi’s Ready, by More Than Ready. His 4-year-old half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]), Sandy’s Surprise, won the 2017 Zia Park Oaks.
Sandi’s Ready won three of 31 career starts at distances ranging from five-eighths of a mile to a mile. She finished third in the 7 ½-furlong South Beach Stakes in 2010 on the grass at Gulfstream Park.
Mourinho’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Snickeez, by Mr. Greeley, was a winner at one mile and 70 yards and produced a trio of stakes-placed horses, including 2010 San Rafael Stakes third-place finisher Domonation. His third dam (maternal great grandmother), Lady Theodora, by Mari’s Book, was a stakes producer who was stakes-placed at a mile and won nine of 57 races.
I was impressed by how Mourinho finished in the Smarty Jones Stakes and he’s never run worse than second in four starts despite entering stakes competition immediately after his career debut. The talent is there. I am a little concerned about his pedigree for 1 ¼ miles and the fact that he faced a rather soft field for the Smarty Jones. Take a “wait-and-see” approach with this Baffert trainee – I think his next start will be very telling.