2022 Kentucky Derby Hopeful Snapshots: Morello

Morello, with Jose Lezcano riding, won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 5 to improve to 3-for-3 in his career and earn 50 Kentucky Derby points. (Joe Labozzetta/NYRA)

Welcome to 2022 Kentucky Derby Prospect Snapshots, where we’ll take a look each week at a recent winner on the Triple Crown trail, usually from the Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule from which the race horses earn points toward qualifying.

The 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will be held May 7, 2022, at Churchill Downs.

This week, we’ll take a closer look at Morello, winner of the $300,000 Gotham Stakes on March 5 at Aqueduct.

Morello earned 50 points toward qualifying for the 2022 Kentucky Derby with that win as the even-money favorite, and with 50 total points he moved into sixth on the latest Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.


Chestnut Colt

Sire (Father): Classic Empire

Dam (Mother): Stop the Wedding, by Congrats

Owners: Blue Lion Thoroughbreds, Craig Taylor and Diamond T Racing

Breeders: Robert Tillyer and Dr. Chet Blackey (Ky.)

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Racing Résumé: Morello improved to three wins in as many starts, all by 4 ¼ lengths or more, with a dominant victory in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes March 5 at Aqueduct. He has raced exclusively at Aqueduct thus far and has never been challenged, which was again the case in the one-turn, one-mile Gotham as the Classic Empire colt drew away under a hand ride to win by 4 ½ lengths under Jose Lezcano. The final quarter-mile in more than 26 seconds was a legitimate concern, but as I mentioned in last week’s 2022 Kentucky Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down blog, I think we could see another gear once Morello faces opposition that can actually challenge him. As it stands, he’s won three races by a combined 13 ¾ lengths.

There are many questions left to be answered on the racetrack by Morello, including how will he fare stretching out around two turns, can he be effective at a track other than Aqueduct, and how will he respond when another horse looks him in the eye in the stretch?

Speed Figures: There also is the question of whether or not Morello is fast enough. Although he came home rather slowly, the speed figures for the Gotham were solid enough that on paper he looks capable of competing with elite 3-year-olds with incremental improvement. He also looks to be on a steady upward trajectory with a string of 83-96-96 Equibase Speed Figures, an improving Beyer Speed Figure line of 72-94-96, and Brisnet speed ratings of 87-94-99. He earned or tied a career-best figure in the Gotham according to each of those three speed figure makers.

Running Style: Morello profiles as a stalker-press the pace type with the tactical speed to race just in behind the pace and take the first run at the pacesetter near the top of the stretch. He’s also responsive enough to race within a length of a sprightly half-mile in :45.55 in winning the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes and to settle a half-length behind a more leisurely half-mile in :47.77 in the Gotham. That should serve him well as the field sizes get larger and the races get longer.

Connections: Morello is named after Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, and the chestnut colt is owned by the partnership of Blue Lion Thoroughbreds, Craig Taylor, and Diamond T Racing. He is the first graded stakes winner for his owners. Dave Lyon is managing partner of Blue Lion Thoroughbreds, which includes eight partners in five different racehorses. Lyon is the co-owner of Manhattan-based real estate appraisal firm Metropolitan Valuation Services, and he was raised in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Winning connections. (Susie Raisher/NYRA)

Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen became the all-time winningest trainer in North America on Aug. 7, 2021, when Stellar Tap won the fifth race at Saratoga Race Course. Asmussen has won more than 9,600 career races, including the 2016 Belmont Stakes with Creator and the Preakness Stakes in 2007 with Curlin and 2009 with Rachel Alexandra. Asmussen also has won eight Breeders’ Cup races and finished second twice in the Kentucky Derby.

Jose Lezcano has ridden Morello in each of his three starts. With 2,987 victories on his résumé through March 21, Lezcano is fast approaching the 3,000-win plateau. A three-time Breeders’ Cup winner, Lezcano finished second in the 2010 Kentucky Derby aboard Ice Box. 

Pedigree Notes: Morello is from the first crop of 2016 champion 2-year-old male Classic Empire, winner of that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and runner-up in the 2017 Preakness Stakes.

Morello’s dam (mother) Stop the Wedding, by Congrats, was a winner of one of 25 career starts with four seconds and six third-place finishes in four seasons. Grandam (maternal grandmother) Wedding Jitters, by Runaway Groom, was a winner at one mile and stakes-placed at 1 1/16 miles. Wedding Jitters also is the grandam of 2014 Preakness third-place finisher Social Inclusion.

Derby Potential: Morello has a world of potential. If he continues his steady improvement, he could very well emerge as a top contender for the 2022 Kentucky Derby.

Of course, there also are plenty of legitimate concerns as he prepares for a planned start in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino April 9 at Aqueduct. He’s never competed in a race longer than one mile, never started in a race at a track other than Aqueduct, and never before faced the quality of competition he’ll have to defeat to be successful in the Wood Memorial. Heck, he’s never even been challenged in the stretch of one of his races, although you could argue that is a positive.

Let’s be honest, this year’s class of 3-year-olds has been largely uninspiring. Epicenter, Simplification, Forbidden Kingdom, Smile Happy, and Classic Causeway all are nice 3-year-old racehorses, but they are not scaring anybody away … and they probably rate as the top of this division. In my view, that makes Morello a much more viable contender than in typical years. He just needs to take a small step forward to be a serious player on the Triple Crown trail, and I think he has that in him.

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