Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an 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.
With three wins in four starts and his only defeat coming at the hands of highly regarded Improbable, Mucho Gusto is beginning to establish his credentials as a serious Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve candidate. Let’s explore his chances to make an impact on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
Ability: Owner Michael Lund Petersen paid $625,000 for Mucho Gusto at the 2018 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale of 2-year-olds in training, which was the fourth-highest price for the sale. Petersen purchased two horses at the sale for $1.55 million. The other purchase, Tale of the Union ($925,000), was an eight-length debut winner in July at Del Mar but has not raced since then.
Mucho Gusto led from start to finish on Sept. 20 at Los Alamitos in his career debut, pulling away to a four-length win in a three-quarter-mile sprint. Eight weeks later, he made his stakes debut in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes at seven-eighths of a mile at Del Mar and posted a front-running 1 ½-length win.
Mucho Gusto earned an 88 Equibase Speed Figure for his debut and a 102 for the Bob Hope, which provided reason for optimism heading into his first try navigating a two-turn race in the Grade 1, 1 1/16-mile Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity on Dec. 8.
An undefeated, stakes-winning 2-year-old from the barn of two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert would seem like a slam dunk to be a heavy favorite for the Los Alamitos Futurity, but in this case Baffert had two colts that fit that description. Mucho Gusto’s stablemate Improbable, a 7 ½-length winner of the Street Sense Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup Future Stars Friday card, was the overwhelming 1-5 favorite for the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity and did not disappoint in a five-length romp.
Mucho Gusto, the 4.20-1 second choice in the field of six, set the pace in the Los Alamitos Futurity but could not match strides with Improbable and finished second, three lengths clear of the third-place finisher. The 95 Equibase Speed Figure indicated a slight step back from Mucho Gusto in his first start around two turns, but make no mistake, Improbable was an eye-catching winner who finished very fast and Mucho Gusto’s second was far from a disappointment.
Regular rider Joe Talamo and Mucho Gusto unveiled new tactics in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis, as the colt was asked to rate off the pace early for the first time while also encountering for the first time a wet track.
Mucho Gusto raced comfortably in third through the opening quarter-mile on the sealed-sloppy main track at Santa Anita Park, and was second by 2 ½ lengths after a half-mile in 46.55 seconds. He seized command from pacesetter Magnificent McCool on the second turn without being asked by Talamo and finished powerfully in the stretch to win by 4 ¾ lengths from Sham Stakes winner Gunmetal Gray. Mucho Gusto covered the final sixteenth of a mile in a swift 6.24 seconds and earned a new career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure and a career-top 90 Beyer Speed Figure.
It’s tough to fully climb on board Mucho Gusto’s bandwagon given he has significant ground to make up on stablemates Improbable and champion 2-year-old male Game Winner just in Baffert’s barn. But remember at this time last year, Baffert’s top Derby hopeful was McKinzie, while Justify had not made his debut.
A lot can happen in three months, and horses at this stage in their development can make huge strides in a short amount of time, especially under the tutelage of a master like Baffert. I’ll acknowledge Mucho Gusto is not yet on par with Baffert’s top two, but I also think he has a very high ceiling for improvement.
Running style: After setting the pace in his first three starts, Mucho Gusto was able to stalk and pounce in the Robert B. Lewis and he looked terrific when he had a rival to target. Speed is an asset for Mucho Gusto, but it becomes even more dangerous if it can be harnessed and doled out on cue.
“The horse got to sit off the pace and they have to learn to do that,” Baffert said. “I was happy with Joe. He rode him with a lot of confidence and was on his own.
“He came away from the gate a little slow, but he settled really well, which I really liked. I’m pretty happy with that.”
The versatility to control the pace or rate just off of it feels like a significant development for Mucho Gusto.
Connections: Michael Lund Petersen earned his first career graded stakes win in the 2015 Los Alamitos Futurity with Mor Spirit, who also won the 2016 Robert B. Lewis Stakes and ran second in the Santa Anita Derby before a 10th-place finish in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. Petersen is a founding shareholder in Pandora Jewelry.
Bob Baffert is best known as the trainer of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify. A four-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer, Baffert was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2009. He earned the first of his 15 career wins in a U.S. Triple Crown races in 1997 when Silver Charm won the Kentucky Derby. Baffert is the best trainer in the U.S. when it comes to preparing a 3-year-old for classic races. In his career, Baffert has won at a 23.7-percent clip in graded stakes races.
Joe Talamo took out his jockey’s license in 2006 and won the 2007 Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey. Talamo has amassed 1,931 victories, including 111 graded stakes wins, from 13,205 starters through Feb. 4. Talamo is unplaced with two runners in the Kentucky Derby.
Pedigree: Part of the reason I’m high on Mucho Gusto on the 2019 Derby trail is some sneaky stamina in his pedigree.
Mucho Macho Man was a racehorse who needed a few starts to mature and he started to find himself early in his 3-year-old season. He won the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes and ran third in the Kentucky Derby. As a 4-year-old, he was even better, winning a pair of Grade 2 races before a runner-up finish in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 ¼ miles. In 2013, he won the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes and capped his 5-year-old season with a tenacious win by a nose over Will Take Charge in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Mucho Gusto is from Mucho Macho Man’s first crop, so we’re just getting a first glimpse at his potential as a sire.
Mucho Gusto’s dam (mother), Itsagiantcauseway, was a winner at 1 1/16 miles and her sire, Giant’s Causeway, is a solid source of stamina. Mucho Gusto’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Countervail, by 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Seeking the Gold, was winless in three starts but never finished out of the top three and ran second at 1 1/16 miles.
You have to dig a little deeper into the bottom half of this pedigree to find the class, but there are several notable stakes winners, including Countervail’s half-brother (same dam, different sire) Peaks and Valleys, the 1995 Canadian Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male. Peaks and Valleys was a multiple Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles. Alternate, another half-sibling of Countervail, was a multiple stakes winner at 1 3/8 miles who produced Alternation, winner of the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap at 1 1/8 miles in 2012 and a graded stakes winner at 1 3/16 miles.
Other notable family members include graded stakes winner and sire Broken Vow and, further back, two-time champion Open Mind.
Granted, Mucho Macho Man is an unproven sire and there is precious little black type in the first two generations of Mucho Gusto’s pedigree, but I see some significant stamina influences that make me optimistic he can continue to be a player as the races get longer on the Triple Crown trail.