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When you envision the Kentucky Derby trail, you may imagine a winding dirt path with it’s many turns and undulations. The trail is likely well-manicured with a perfectly edged boundary between the groomed dirt and bright green grass along its sides leading towards the famed Twin Spires of Churchill Downs in the distance.
This year’s Derby trail is already taking on a different look, though.
The grass along the edges of the 2018 Kentucky Derby trail has started to overgrow, infringing into the main dirt path, as horses that started their careers on the turf have been and will be prominent figures along the march towards the first Saturday in May.
The most prominent “turf invader” on the Derby trail so far has been Catholic Boy, winner of the Grade 2 Remsen this past Saturday at Aqueduct, but other turfers, including Grade 1 Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn and Grade 2 Summer winner Untamed Domain will also make their presence known on the dirt.
Buckle up for a bumpy ride on this grassy Derby trail as we detail these top three juveniles moving from turf.
Even though he finished fourth in the BC Juvenile Turf behind Mendelssohn and Untamed Domain, Catholic Boy is now the most proven out of the three on dirt after drawing away to win the Remsen. Trainer Jonathan Thomas (a former Todd Pletcher assistant) said after his Remsen win, “Early on, he was a turf horse only because there weren’t many route races on the dirt. It was kind of a default sort of thing, so now we have a lot of thinking to do. The key to him is he gets a route of ground.”
Catholic Boy got all the track he wanted at 1 1/16 miles, chewing up grass late to win the Grade 3 With Anticipation at Saratoga in August in his second career start. After that, Thomas let Catholic Boy get 65 days off to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup.
Stuck on the rail after being shuffled back early in the BC Juvenile Turf, Catholic Boy found some space late to finish fourth, only a head behind the highly-regarded Voting Control for third place. Catholic Boy galloped out about 5 lengths ahead of the whole field in the BC Juvenile Turf, demonstrating his affinity for going longer and that the mile distance of the race may have been a bit short for his peak performance.
The way in which he extended at the end of his Remsen win, at 1 1/8 miles, only adds to the notion that he will continue to thrive at long distances. A son of More Than Ready out of the Bernardini mare, Song Of Bernadette, he has good dirt and distance influences in his pedigree. Thomas said that Catholic Boy will get a short rest in Florida before his next start and will keep him around two turns, ideally at 1 1/8 miles. A turf race as his first start in 2018 is also an option.
After the Remsen, Thomas said, “Obviously, our preference would be to have a dirt horse this time of year. I think we definitely have to consider his next start being a dirt race for sure and kind of see where he takes us.”
World-class trainer Aidan O’Brien made similar statements about going to the dirt after his entry, Mendelssohn, won the BC Juvenile Turf. O’Brien was quick to say, “He’s an American dirt pedigree. We had it in our heads that, if everything went well (in the BC Juvenile Turf), he could be a horse we would train for the Kentucky Derby.”
Mendelssohn sat a perfect trip in the pocket behind the front runners in the BC Juvenile Turf from his rail draw under top European jockey Ryan Moore. When he was produced for the stretch run, he found plenty of daylight to take over and win, holding off a late outside run from Untamed Domain.
O’Brien had originally put first preference for Mendelssohn to run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on dirt, but chose to run on the turf since Mendelssohn was still green and not ready for a surface switch that early in his career. After getting excited and studdish in the BC paddock, Mendelssohn settled down, and O’Brien’s decision to run him on the turf paid off with the trainer’s fourth BC Juvenile Turf win.
With a regal pedigree – he’s a half-brother to multiple-Eclipse award winning dirt champion female, Beholder – there is no doubt that he has strong dirt influences on the bottom-side of his pedigree. He fetched a hefty $3 million as a yearling purchase at the Keeneland September 2016 sale by Coolmore, so the son of Scat Daddy has always been in the limelight.
The late Scat Daddy has been known as a top turf sire, but he did win the Sanford, the Champagne, the Fountain of Youth, and the Florida Derby during his career, so his dirt form could get passed along to his kin. Scat Daddy was retired from racing because of a slight tendon injury suffered in his 18th-place finish in the 2007 Kentucky Derby, so that shouldn’t be held against him or affect Mendelssohn’s chances if he advances to the Derby.
O’Brien has the new option to take the European Road to the Kentucky Derby. In its inaugural year, one spot in the Derby starting gate is set aside for the horse that accumulates the most points over seven races run in Europe. With four races out of the seven already run for juveniles, three races remain in March at Kempton Park, Dundalk, and Newcastle. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that O’Brien brings Mendelssohn stateside for a 100-point race like the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes, returning to Lexington where he sold for $3 million. A trip to Dubai for the UAE Derby is also a possibility, like O’Brien did with Lancaster Bomber last year after running second in the BC Juvenile Turf.
Mendelssohn went off at 31/1 odds in Pool 1 of the Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Future Wager that closed on November 26.
Not too far away on the odds line in that future pool, Untamed Domain closed at 29/1 for those hoping that the BC Juvenile Turf runner-up could make a successful move to the dirt for trainer Graham Motion.
To start the BC Juvenile Turf, Untamed Domain sat in the back of the pack (second to last) of the bulky 14-horse field, forcing jockey Jose Ortiz to circle the whole field, including going six-wide during his extended move on the turn into the stretch. All of that ground loss caught up to him, as he was able to pass every other runner in the race except Mendelssohn. The Del Mar Trakus system recorded Untamed Domain running 68 more feet than Mendelssohn in the race, yet he still only lost by a length.
The ability to make such a devastating move late was evident early in Untamed Domain’s career when he broke his maiden on Saratoga opening weekend in July. He subsequently finished a good third behind Catholic Boy in the Grade 3 With Anticipation before shipping up to Woodbine to win the Grade 2 Summer by a neck in September.
Even before his valiant runner-up finish in the BC Juvenile Turf, Motion said that he had designs on making the move to dirt for a try on the Derby Trail, a statement he reiterated after the BC. Motion said on “At the Races” with Steve Byk, “I think I’ll freshen him up and probably point him for a race like the Holy Bull at Gulfstream (at the beginning of February). I really want to try him on the dirt next time. He does all his works on the dirt. He’s handled it fine. His pedigree leans more towards grass, but I really want to try him on the dirt and see if he can compete at this level for the beginning of next year.”
Motion has had success moving a horse from turf and synthetics, as he won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Untamed Domain’s sire, Animal Kingdom. After running in a turf race at Gulfstream and then the Grade 3 Spiral over synthetic, Animal Kingdom followed up his Churchill success with a second in the Preakness and later won the 2013 Dubai World Cup. Even though Motion points out that Untamed Domain’s pedigree leans to turf, Motion would love nothing more than to copy his sire’s Run for the Roses once again with the son of his only Derby winner.
There may be other horses that try the 2018 Derby trail from the turf. We can speculate about impressive Chad Brown turf trainees like Voting Control or recent Grade 3 Cecil B. Demille winner Analyze It trying for Derby glory, but there have been no definitivee plans for these runners to move from their turf home. Perhaps it’s better for them to develop and point towards late spring/early summer races, like the Grade 2 American Turf on Derby Day, or the Grade 1 Belmont Derby in early July. The allure of the Derby is always there for their connections, though, so we may see them give the dirt a shot.
Besides Animal Kingdom, Derby success has been rare for horses starting their careers on the turf. The only one in recent memory was Paddy O’Prado, a horse that moved from the turf to finish second in the Blue Grass Stakes over the Keeneland synthetic course before finishing third in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
Even though these turfers look very promising right now, there is a lot to overcome along the often windy, bumpy, muddy, dirty, and sloppy Derby trail, but it’s always interesting and suspenseful to see how they will adapt.
For all my thoughts along the Derby trail, feel free to follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim.
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