Nominees In, Mohaymen Offers Striking First Impression

Unbeaten champion and Longines Kentucky Oaks favorite Songbird makes her 2016 debut Saturday in the Las Virgenes at Santa Anita. Benoit Photography

Unbeaten champion and Longines Kentucky Oaks favorite Songbird makes her 2016 debut Saturday in the Las Virgenes at Santa Anita. Benoit Photography

With 368 3-year-old Thoroughbreds in the fold as early nominees to the Triple Crown races, the pace on the 2016 “Road to the Kentucky Derby” (“RTTKD”) has quickened. Things are also in motion after a dazzling effort by one of the current Derby favorites last weekend and a major outing set this weekend for one of the young stars on the early “short list” of top hopes for the Run for the Roses.

After a stylish romp by Shadwell Stable’s unbeaten Mohaymen in the Grade II Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, the Derby hope at the center of the spotlight for the coming weekend is Michael Lund Peterson’s Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) runner-up and Los Alamitos Futurity (GI) winner, Mor Spirit.

The latter, Bob Baffert’s leading hope to succeed retired Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah and provide the Hall of Fame trainer with a fifth Kentucky Derby win, is set to run in Saturday’s $150,000 Robert B. Lewis (GIII) at Santa Anita.

But with unbeaten 2-year-old champ Nyquist working toward his 2016 debut and Mor Spirit’s 3-year-old debut approaching, most of the Kentucky Derby discussion has focused on Mohaymen and his impressive 2016 bow in the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull.

The son of super sire Tapit was geared down in deep stretch last Saturday when he cruised to an easy 3 ½-length triumph over the highly-regarded Greenpointcrusader in the $350,000 Holy Bull. Jockey Junior Alvarado had the colt under a hand-ride, and the ease of his effort made the final margin feel more like 13 ½ lengths.

Lexington-born trainer Kiaran McLaughin, who saddled the runner-up in the 2005 Kentucky Derby and has been around some very good horses during a career that included a stretch as assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, needed only a few syllables to sum-up Mohaymen’s star turn.

Heavily favored and unbeaten Mohaymen scored his first win of 2016 in the Holy Bull. Goglianese Photography, Gulfstream Park

Heavily favored and unbeaten Mohaymen scored his first win of 2016 in the Holy Bull. Goglianese Photography, Gulfstream Park

“He took my breath away,” McLaughlin said. “Today was pretty special.”

The 10 points collected by Mohaymen in the Holy Bull romp lifted his RTTKD total to 20, which is good for second-place behind Nyquist. The $2.2 million sale topper at Keeneland’s 2014 September yearling sale ran to his pedigree and price tag as he won for the fourth time without a loss and has now eared $559,830.

McLaughlin’s star will stay in South Florida for now. Next up on his schedule is a run in the Grade II Fountain of Youth on February 27 at Gulfstream.

Saturday’s Robert B. Lewis, named for the co-owner of Baffert’s 1997 Derby winner and fan-favorite Silver Charm, Mor Spirit’s only loss in four races was his runner-up finish to Airoforce over a sloppy track in Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Jockey Club.

“This is when you start heading into the deep end of the pool,” Baffert said. “They start separating themselves now. I think with every start, we’re learning more about Mor Spirit and figuring out what he wants to do … He’s got a huge stride and beautiful action.”

Mor Spirit is a son of Eskendreya and was bred in Pennsylvania, a state that has produced only two Kentucky Derby winners to date. The first was Lil E. Tee in 1992, and Smarty Jones was unbeaten when he took the Derby in 2004.

Also last Saturday, Sunny Ridge upset favored Flexibility in the $250,000 Withers Stakes (GIII) at Aqueduct. Sunny Ridge earned 10 RTTKD points for his win. Flexibility finished fourth behind the winner, who is trained by Jason Servis, whose brother John saddled Smarty Jones to win the Kentucky Derby.

A bonus of this weekend will be the 2016 debut of unbeaten 2-year-old filly champion Songbird, the heavy favorite for the $1 million Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI) who makes her seasonal bow for owner Fox Hill Farm and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer on Saturday’s Santa Anita program in the Grade I Las Virgenes.

The impressive daughter of Medaglia d’Oro has not raced since her runaway win in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland.

Although many believe that Songbird could be more talented than any of her contemporaries, male or female, Fox Hill Farm owner Rick Porter did not nominate her to the Triple Crown and has the Kentucky Oaks atop her list of targets for 2016.

With just over 90 days remaining until Kentucky Derby 142, here’s my roster of top 10 contenders. More opinions are available at kentuckyderby.com. VT

Mohaymen | Nyquist | Brody’s Cause
Airoforce | Greenpointcrusader
Gun Runner | Mor Spirit | Exaggerator
Conquest Big E | Gift Box