Why Mendelssohn Can End UAE Derby’s Futility in Kentucky Derby

Mendelssohn and connections in the Meydan winner's circle after his impressive UAE Derby win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

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 Mendelssohn, winner of the Group 2, $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group on March 31 at Meydan in Dubai.


Bay Colt

Sire (Father): Scat Daddy

Dam (Mother): Leslie’s Lady, by Tricky Creek

Owner: Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith

Breeder: Clarkland Farm (Ky.)

Trainer: Aidan O’Brien

The United Arab Emirates Derby has historically been a prep race that has had little to no impact on the Kentucky Derby. Master of Hounds’ fifth-place finish in 2011 is the best finish from a UAE Derby runner in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. But many analysts who watched the 2018 UAE Derby believe this year’s winner, Mendelssohn, is the race’s best hope to date to contend for a win on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. Let’s take a closer look at why he is so respected and evaluate his chances to win the race.

Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard

Ability: A $3 million purchase at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, Mendelssohn topped the sale by $1 million over the next-highest-priced yearling (Marconi, a Toyota Blue Grass Stakes entrant). Yearlings do not sell for that high of a price unless they are essentially flawless physically and mentally and boast a promising pedigree.

Mendelssohn disappointed in his career debut in July 2017, running eighth in a turf sprint at the Curragh in Ireland at seven-eighths of a mile. He returned to the same venue four weeks later and won by a length going a mile.

After an unplaced finish in his stakes debut in the Group 2 Champagne Stakes in September in England, a runner-up finish to stablemate U S Navy Flag in the Group 1 Dubai Dewhurst Stakes on Oct. 14 gave his trainer, Aidan O’Brien, the confidence to send Mendelssohn to the United States for the Breeders’ Cup. Because of his pedigree — Mendelssohn is a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to four-time champion Beholder and Grade 1 winner and sire Into Mischief — there was speculation that Mendelssohn would compete in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on dirt rather than the Juvenile Turf, but instead O’Brien sent U S Navy Flag to the Juvenile and pointed Mendelssohn to the turf race.

In the Juvenile Turf, Mendelssohn stalked the pace from fourth as the tepid 4.80-1 favorite but proved best in the stretch in a visually impressive one-length victory. He earned a strong 109 Equibase Speed Figure for the win. The 86 Beyer Speed Figure was a little less promising; Brisnet gave him a 91 speed figure. After the race, O’Brien said he planned to target the 2018 Kentucky Derby with Mendelssohn.

He made his 3-year-old debut on the synthetic surface at Dundalk and prevailed by three-quarters of a length in the 32red Patton Stakes.

Prior to the UAE Derby, there was speculation that, because of the perceived quality of the field for the race, Mendelssohn would need to improve dramatically in his first try on dirt to have a chance in the Dubai classic … and did he ever.

Mendelssohn seized command of the 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby from the outset and sailed to an 18 ½-length runaway win in track-record time (1:55.18), shaving more than a second from the previous record of 1:56.61, set by Mizbah in January 2017.

If you have not watched the race, it’s worth the investment. If you did watch it, you will almost certainly be compelled to watch again. It was that impressive.

A couple of additional points before we move to speed figures. Most final Derby prep races are at 1 1/8 miles, but given that this was at 1 3/16 miles (the distance of the Preakness) with the long Dubai stretch, it seems very likely that 1 ¼ miles on Derby day will be no problem for Mendelssohn. He also carried 126 pounds in the race, which is the same assignment the 3-year-olds will have for the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Most of the final U.S. Derby preps have a 122 weight assignment and Derby trail races generally range from 115-122. It’s not a huge issue to go from 122 to 126 pounds, but it is nice to see it was no problem for Mendelssohn.

Equibase did not assign speed figures for the Dubai races, but Daily Racing Form awarded Mendelssohn a 106 Beyer Speed Figure and Timeform gave him a 116. The Beyer Speed Figure is the fastest awarded to a winner on the Road to the 2018 Triple Crown, while the Timeform rating was eight points behind the 124 McKinzie earned when he was disqualified and placed second in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, which was the highest figure in 2018.

While I still don’t like the long-distance ship from the Middle East to Central Kentucky to race in five weeks, and perhaps more importantly the significant change in climate, Mendelssohn looks like the best Derby hopeful to come out of the UAE Derby by a wide margin in the history of the race.

Running style: Mendelssohn took command early in the UAE Derby after stalking the pace in previous races. He set a fairly easy tempo in the race, facing only a little pressure early, before pulling away on the turn. It took him about 75 yards into the stretch before he changed leads, but once he did he surged away from his overmatched opponents. He has good early speed and can use it to his advantage to gain early position in the Kentucky Derby, and I don’t see any reason why he can’t settle into a stalking position just off the pace on dirt as he has done in his turf races, depending upon how the pace scenario unfolds.

Connections: The powerful Coolmore partnership of Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith owns Mendelssohn.

Tabor immersed himself in racing in the mid-1990s after selling his 114-shop betting company, Prince Arthur, in Great Britain to rival Coral. He made a quick impact in the U.S. in May 1995 when Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby.

Magnier is the daughter of the legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien. Her husband, John Magnier, is the managing partner of Coolmore Stud.

Smith worked for British bookmaker Ladbrokes before leaving in 1988 and enjoying success in property and currency trading.

Together Tabor, Magnier, and Smith have raced eight Breeders’ Cup winners, and several of the partnership’s top horses and victories are listed below in trainer Aidan O’Brien’s accomplishments.

O'Brien and Tabor after Mendelssohn's Breeders' Cup win.
O'Brien and Tabor after Mendelssohn's Breeders' Cup win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Trainer Aidan O’Brien, 49, took over the storied Ballydoyle operation in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1995. He has gone on to remarkable accomplishments, winning every classic race in England and Ireland at least four times, including a stunning 12 Irish Derby winners and 11 winners of the Irish Two Thousand Guineas. O’Brien has won the Epsom Derby six times, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe twice, and has 12 victories at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. He’s trained three winners of the Cartier Award as European Horse of the Year (Giant’s Causeway, 2000; Dylan Thomas, 2007; Minding, 2016) as horses trained by O’Brien have amassed 39 total Cartier Awards. Master of Hounds, fifth in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, is the best finish for O’Brien from five Derby starters.

Jockey Ryan Moore is widely considered the top rider in Europe with a strong claim to being the best jockey in the world. He has won almost all of the top races in Europe, including the Epsom Derby, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the Irish and English Oaks, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. The three-time British champion picked up his ninth win at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in 2017 with Mendelssohn in the Juvenile Turf. He finished seventh aboard Lines of Battle in 2013 in his only previous start in the Kentucky Derby.

Pedigree: Mendelssohn is from the seventh crop of 2007 Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy, who died in 2015 at age 11 and has emerged as an elite sire in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Chilean champion Dacita blossomed as a multiple Grade 1 winner in the U.S., and other North American standouts for Scat Daddy include Daddys Lil Darling, Celestine, Lady Aurelia, Lady of Shamrock, and Harmonize. While Scat Daddy is not a dirt route sire in the classic mold, he has proved capable of siring solid Triple Crown trail contenders such as El Kabeir, Daddy Nose Best, Frac Daddy, Handsome Mike, and this year’s Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Flameaway.

We already mentioned a key bright spot from the bottom half of this pedigree: Mendelssohn is a half-sibling to four-time champion and future Hall of Famer Beholder, a true superstar from 2012 to 2016; and to Grade 1 winner and sire Into Mischief. His dam, Leslie’s Lady, was a stakes winner sprinting and the 2016 Broodmare of the Year.

There is quite a bit of speed in the bottom half of this pedigree, enough so that I might be a little concerned about his ability to excel at 1 ¼ miles had he not just set a track record a 1 3/16 miles. Distance should not be an issue.

Mendelssohn looks like a terrific prospect with an impressive pedigree and impeccable connections. He’ll be battling UAE Derby history in the Kentucky Derby, but he looks like the best Derby hopeful to come out of the race since, well, ever!

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