Encouraging Signs From Kentucky Derby Hopeful Modernist

Modernist broke through with a one-length win in the second division of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford on Feb. 15 to join the Road to the Kentucky Derby. (Lou Hodges, Jr. /Hodges Photography)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2020 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on 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 Modernist, winner of the second division of the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford Feb. 15 at Fair Grounds.


Dark Bay or Brown Colt

Sire (Father): Uncle Mo

Dam (Mother): Symbolic Gesture, by Bernardini

Owners: Pam and Martin Wygod

Breeders: Wygod Family (Ky.)

Trainer: Bill Mott

Modernist’s victory in the second division of the Feb. 15 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford has largely been overshadowed by first division winner Mr. Monomoy’s performance one race before. The final time of that first heat was better, as were the speed figures for Mr. Monomoy – but as we all know, horse racing, and especially the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, is about much more than simply speed figures. Let’s dig a little deeper to analyze Modernist’s chances.

Ability: A Wygod family homebred from the family of champion Sweet Catomine and 2009 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Life Is Sweet, Modernist needed a couple of starts to find his footing. He ran fifth in his September 2019 debut and an improved third last December at Aqueduct before breaking through with a change of tactics and added distance in his 3-year-old bow.

Modernist kicked off 2020 with a front-running, four-length runaway win in a 1 1/8-mile race Jan. 25 at Aqueduct. That was the first time in his career that he dictated the pace and also his first start at 1 1/8 miles – he ran three-quarters of a mile in his debut and one mile in his second start.

Both his Equibase Speed Figure and BrisNet speed rating indicated that he’d essentially paired the number from his third-place finish: 91 to 93 for Equibase and 90 to 87, a small step back, for BrisNet.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, however, was encouraged enough to test Modernist on the Triple Crown trail, and the Uncle Mo colt responded with a one-length upset win at 12.80-1 odds in the second division of the Risen Star.

After pressing the pace from second early in the 1 1/8-mile Risen Star, Modernist pulled clear in the stretch as pacesetter Ny Traffic faded to third.

There was much debate after the race that there was a speed bias at Fair Grounds that day and also a bias that favored runners on the inside part of the track, both of which apply to Modernist. I do not place a ton of stock in that – the four previous two-turn dirt races that day prior to Mr. Monomoy’s front-running win in the Risen Star first division all were won by stalkers and none hugged the rail – nor do I dismiss that fact that tactical speed and saving ground might have played a role in the outcome … those two factors play a role in almost every horse race.

Modernist improved to a 98 Equibase Speed Figure and a 92 BrisNet rating, both career highs but well below the top figures earned on the 2020 Derby trail. Likewise, the 84 Beyer Speed Figure and 105 TimeForm US rating were uninspiring.

My biggest issue with Modernist’s Risen Star win was that his race shaped up almost exactly like the first division with identical opening half-miles in :48.57, and the other division finished more than four-fifths of a second faster, including a final eighths of a mile in 12.78 seconds compared with 13.11 for Modernist.

But before dismissing Modernist’s chances, it’s important to note that he handled a significant class test going from a maiden race to a Grade 2 and showed significant improvement in victory. I liked that he fought for his position entering the first turn from the inside and then relaxed nicely on the backstretch when jockey Junior Alvarado gave him a tug on the reins to wait behind and inside Ny Traffic. He did not look uncomfortable inside another horse and settled into a good rhythm, which allowed him to use his energy to surge clear near the eighth pole.

Both of his wins came at 1 1/8 miles, so he has tactical speed and it does not appear that distance should be an issue. That is a valuable combination and he’s starting to figure things out mentally.

“He’s become more mature and has been more professional about everything,” Mott said after the Risen Star. “I couldn’t be more delighted with how he acted in the paddock and post parade. I told Junior [Alvarado] to take advantage of the one hole. The horse handled everything really well.”

Running style: Modernist rallied from eighth in his debut and then stalked from fourth in his second start before showing a new dimension in his Jan. 25 maiden win when he led from start to finish. He showed similar tactical speed in the Risen Star Stakes, pressing from second but relaxing nicely along the backstretch and awaiting his cue to accelerate. I expect more of the same moving forward as positioning is especially important early in races with larger fields and Modernist has already shown the ability to press and still finish well.

Connections: Marty and Pam Wygod were born in New York and now live in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Marty went to high school with Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel and served as a hotwalker for Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens as a 15-year-old. He owned his first racehorse in the mid-1960s and the couple purchased in 1975 River Edge Farm in Buellton, Calif., transforming it from a tomato farm into a Thoroughbred breeding operation.

The Wygods won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in 2004 with homebred Sweet Catomine and the Ladies’ Classic in 2009 with homebred Life Is Sweet. They also raced Grade 1 winners Idiot Proof, Tranquility Lake, Courageous Cat, After Market, Silent Sighs, and Harmonious and campaigned in partnership Grade 1 winner Paradise Woods and Grade 2 winner and sire Twirling Candy.         

A three-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer, Bill Mott was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. He has won 4,983 races through Feb. 24, according to Equibase stats. The 10-time Breeders’ Cup winner earned his first Triple Crown victory when Drosselmeyer won the 2010 Belmont Stakes and in 2019 won his first Kentucky Derby with Country House.

Junior Alvarado has ridden Modernist in each of his four races. Since taking out his jockey’s license in 2007, Alvarado has amassed 1,683 winners, including 181 stakes wins, through Feb. 24. He earned his first of 10 Grade 1 wins in 2010 aboard Éclair de Lune in the Beverly D. Stakes. Alvarado finished fourth in the 2016 Kentucky Derby on Mohaymen.

Pedigree: Modernist is from the fifth crop of 2010 champion 2-year-old male Uncle Mo, who possessed brilliant speed and the ability to carry it around two turns. He showed he would pass that ability to his progeny right from the start as Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist from Uncle Mo’s first crop was named champion 2-year-old male of 2015 and went on to win the 2016 Kentucky Derby.

Uncle Mo has subsequently shown versatility with multiple Grade 1 winners on turf and dirt as well as sprinting and around two turns. He has 56 stakes winners, including 32 group or graded stakes winners from five crops age 3 and older.

Modernist’s dam (mother) was Symbolic Gesture, an unraced daughter of 2006 Preakness Stakes winner Bernardini who died in 2017. Symbolic Gesture was a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to 2004 champion 2-year-old filly Sweet Catomine and 2009 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Life Is Sweet, the aforementioned homebreds of breeders Pam and Marty Wygod.

Modernist’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Sweet Life, by Kris S., was Grade 1-placed and a stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles before going on to become Broodmare of the Year in 2009.

It’s pretty clear from this pedigree how Modernist came by his combination of speed and stamina as a product of a terrific young sire and a fantastic female family cultivated by the Wygods.

I did not have Modernist in my initial Kentucky Derby top 10, but with his talent, strong connections, and elite pedigree, he should be viewed as a 3-year-old with a chance to take a big step forward.

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