When Jerry Crawford and his wife, Linda, first saw a son of Uncle Mo out of the Pulpit mare Callingmissbrown at the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, it wasn't a full-blown case of love at first sight.
But it was pretty close.
"I liked a lot of things about him and so did my wife, who helps me at the sales," said Crawford, the CEO of the Donegal Racing partnership. "We have a really good selection team but we make the final decisions and this horse looked like he was out of balance as many of them are at that stage of his life. Our thought was he could balance out and really be something."
About a year-and-a-half after Donegal bought the colt they named Mo Donegal for $250,000, everything has indeed balanced out quite well.
Mo Donegal punched his ticket to the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve as he rallied strongly in the final furlong for trainer Todd Pletcher and beat Early Voting by a neck to capture the $750,000 Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino for 3-year-olds April 9 at Aqueduct Racetrack.
"He got a great ride from (Joel Rosario) and Todd did a great training job," Crawford said about the winner of 3 of 5 starts with earnings of $621,800. "In theory, 'Mo' had to be much the best to win today. I was here at Aqueduct all day yesterday and today and no one closed against the speed bias. When you consider how this horse came from way back, I think his performance is even better than it appeared."
For the throng of about 120 joyous Donegal partners who turned out at Aqueduct and jammed the winner's circle, the victory was more than good enough, given what it secured.
Going into Saturday, Mo Donegal was just 26th on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 12 points and needed a big effort to dream about Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. But after rallying from last in the field of eight and erasing Early Voting's two-length lead at the eighth pole, Mo Donegal picked up 100 qualifying points to vault into fourth in points with 112 and can now safely point toward the May 7 opening leg of the Triple Crown at a 1 1/4-mile distance that should be well within his scope.
"We feel very good right now. We just have to keep him healthy and happy and I couldn't be more excited about the Kentucky Derby," Crawford said. "This is why our partners do this. We focus on classic races and this will be our fourth Derby horse in 13 years which is pretty amazing considering what we spend opposed to what some other people spend."
In trying to become the first Wood winner since Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 to win the Run for the Roses, he will also attempt to become the first winner of Aqueduct's Grade 2 Remsen Stakes to add a Kentucky Derby win to his resume since Thunder Gulch prevailed in the 1995 Run for the Roses. Without doubt, he'll have a large rooting section behind him as he tries to break those droughts.
"The pressure I feel in races like this is that I don't want to disappoint our Donegal partners," Crawford said.
Mo Donegal did earn a spot in the record books as he became the seventh Wood winner for Pletcher, tying him with the famed "Sunny Jim" Fitsimmons for the most wins in New York's definitive Kentucky Derby prep.
"What I feel best about is a terrific win for the owners, Donegal Racing. That's what always gives our stable a lot of joy is when we're able to win big races for our owners," said Pletcher who was at Keeneland Saturday, leaving the saddling of Mo Donegal to assistant Byron Hughes. "He was resolute. He kept coming and I was thrilled to see him get there. He was able to wear down a horse that was loose on the lead. So I thought it was a big race."
Bred by Ashview Farm and Colts Neck Farm and consigned to the Keeneland sale by Ashview, Mo Donegal is the second of three foals by Callingmissbrown and her lone stakes winner to date. She also has a 2-year-old Into Mischief filly named Prank, who sold for $500,000 to Solis/Litt (Frank Brothers, agent), from Ashview's consignment at the 2021 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
A winner of the 1 1/8-mile Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct in his last start, the son of Gun Runner carved out the early fractions of :47.75 and 1:11.59 on a fast track and put away all of his pursuers, with one notable exception.
"He ran a great race. He was second best today but that was no disgrace. He made his own trip and had every chance to win but was nailed at the wire by a really nice horse. I'll talk to (owner Seth Klarman) and try to figure out what to do with him. I have to digest what happens everywhere today and, first and foremost, look at the horse and then we'll put it together to see if he would have a reasonable chance to win the Derby. All along we said we're not interested in going to the Derby unless we have a realistic chance to win the race and based on his limited experience and such, I'm not sure. But he has the points, so probably we'll go, but let's see how he comes out of it," said Brown, who did not rule out waiting for the May 21 Preakness Stakes with the 3-year-old colt who lost for the first time in three career starts.
Through the 40 points he picked up Saturday, Early Voting is 16th with 50 points in the race for 20 starting spots in the Kentucky Derby.
Of course, Brown's view of the Kentucky Derby took on a different perspective a few minutes later when Jeff Drown's Zandon rallied impressively to win the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland to become his top Triple Crown hopeful.
Zandon finished a nose behind Mo Donegal after a spirited and controversial stretch duel in the Remsen last December.
After Mo Donegal ($6.30), the 2-1 second choice, crossed the wire in 1:47.96 for the 1 1/8 miles (the fastest time in the race since Bellamy Road's epic 2005 romp in 1:47), Daniel Alonso's Skippylongstocking finished 3 1/2 lengths behind Early Voting for third.
The son of Exaggerator trained by Saffie Joseph Jr. picked up 20 qualifying points but is 31st on the Leaderboard and will need a slew of defections to run in the Kentucky Derby. Fourth-place finisher A.P.'s Secret picked up 10 points.
Grade 3 Gotham Stakes winner Morello, the 9-5 favorite, hit the inside of the gate at the start and was eighth after the opening quarter-mile. Though he never entered contention and finished sixth, he is 17th on the Leaderboard and can still run in the Kentucky Derby if trainer Steve Asmussen and his connections elect to do so. -Bob Ehalt
Speaker's Corner Blows Them Away in Carter Handicap
The speedy homebred son of Street Sense toyed with his six rivals in the $300,000 Grade 1 Carter Handicap, vying for the early lead and then pulling away in the stretch to win by 4 1/2 lengths in the kind of top-level performance that justified running him in one-turn races.
"He's run three races back-to-back that were pretty good," trainer Bill Mott said. "It took a while get him going I suppose, but it looks like he's found his groove in these one-turn races. He's very fast."
Speaker's Corner, out of the Bernardini mare Tyburn Brook, was certainly fast Saturday as he led by a length through a half-mile in :46:11 and then widened to a four-length margin in 1:09.40 at the eighth pole before crossing the wire ahead of Reinvestment Risk in 1:21.34 for the seven furlongs.
"We thought he was talented at 2 and we had to give him some time off. It turned out we had to give him more time off than we thought (10 months), but right now it looks like it's turned out well," Mott said. -Bob Ehalt
Wit Noses Out Highly Respected in Bay Shore
Repole Stable, St. Elias Stable and Gainesway Stable's Wit rallied gamely down the lane to reel in a stubborn Highly Respected by a nose and capture the $200,000 Grade 3 Bay Shore Stakes, a seven-furlong sprint for sophomores at Aqueduct Racetrack April 9.
Trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, Wit was sent to post as the lukewarm 2-1 mutuel favorite in his seasonal debut and did not disappoint.
"The wins get better every year," said co-owner Mike Repole. "It's a track I've been coming to since I was 13-years-old, and 40 years later, winning graded stakes here is really special. I—100%—thought we lost; it was a special win. Todd and I have been friends for a long time now. It's a lot of fun."
Jose Ortiz, a three-time winner on the card, guided Wit into a stalking position in fifth as Fromanothamutha led the field through a half-mile in :22.21 seconds and the half-mile in :45.55 over the fast main track.
Wit made a menacing wide move approaching the turn to the outside of Scaramouche and Highly Respected, the latter of which spurted between rivals mid-turn to take command from the fading leader with a bold move under Manny Franco.
Highly Respected opened up a two-length advantage at the stretch call as Ortiz went to work aboard a determined Wit, who found another gear late and closed to notch a nose win in a final time of 1:23.27. -BloodHorse Staff
Nostalgic Defeats Venti Valentine in Gazelle Upset
Godolphin Stable's homebred Nostalgic challenged pacesetter and even-money favorite Venti Valentine before surging up the rail in the final furlong, posting a 1 1/4-length victory in the $250,000 Grade 3 Gazelle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Aqueduct Racetrack April 9.
Nostalgic, trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott and ridden by Jose Ortiz, completed the stretch-drive rally to win her first career stakes and in the process secured 100 qualifying points to the Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs May 6. The 1 1/8-mile offered 100-40-20-10 points to the top-four finishers.
The New York-bred Venti Valentine broke on top in her first race since posting a seven-length romp in the Busher Invitational March 5 at the Aqueduct. Under jockey Manny Franco, Venti Valentine paced the seven-horse field through the opening quarter-mile in :24.48, the half in :49.26 and three quarters in 1:13.93 over the fast track.
The Jorge Abreu-trained Venti Valentine maintained the edge into the stretch, but Ortiz kept Nostalgic to task along the inside and tenaciously pursued, overtaking the pacesetter before hitting the wire in a 1:50.41 final time.
It marked the Medaglia d'Oro filly's second consecutive win after besting allowance optional company by 6 3/4 lengths March 3 at Gulfstream Park.
Last time, we planned on putting her up in the race a little bit, which we did again today," Mott said, who previously won the Gazelle with Close Hatches in 2013. "We wanted to see her engaged early a little more and she did it. She held her position and came through on the rail. I didn't tell him where to be other than we didn't want to be 15 lengths back."
"She just hadn't learned how to put in that kind of a run yet," Mott added. "She hadn't learned how to get that position. It all goes together, it's just maturity, time and she had a good winter at Payson Park."
Off at 4-1, Nostalgic returned $10.60 on a $2 win bet. She improved her career earnings to $235,400. -BloodHorse Staff
Glass Ceiling Smashes Field in Distaff Handicap
Glass Ceiling showed she could be a strong contender when capturing the Garland of Roses Stakes to conclude her 2021 campaign. The Constitution mare has capitalized on that experience as a 5-year-old, improving to 3-for-3 after overtaking Kept Waiting from the outside and finishing strong for a five-length win in the $150,000 Grade 3 Distaff Handicap, a seven-furlong sprint for older fillies and mares.
Co-owned by Michael Foster along with trainer Charlie Baker, Glass Ceiling started the year with an off-the-pace optional-claiming score in January at Aqueduct before posting a half-length win in her graded stakes debut last out in the Grade 3 Barbara Fritchie Stakes in February at Laurel Park, with both wins coming at the Distaff distance.
The 68th running of the Distaff saw Glass Ceiling break sharply from the outermost post carrying 122 pounds with Dylan Davis aboard. Glass Ceiling settled into second position as Kept Waiting led the five-horse field through the opening quarter-mile in :22.98 and the half-mile in :45.98 on the fast main track.
Out of the turn, Glass Ceiling stayed within striking distance of Kept Waiting as 3-5 favorite Search Results maintained her position in third. Jockey Kendrick Carmouche maintained Kept Waiting's position to the inside, but Davis used right-handed encouragement to coax Glass Ceiling, who had plenty in reserve in surging to the wire in a final time of 1:21.71. -BloodHorse Staff