Kentucky Derby Report (2/10): Baffert remains in spotlight with Mor Spirit

Profile Picture: James Scully

February 10th, 2016

Mor Spirit confirmed his status as a major Kentucky Derby contender when opening his 3-year-old season in Saturday’s Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita, rallying to win going away by 1 ½ lengths as the 1-2 favorite.

With three wins and a pair of seconds from five career starts, Mor Spirit moved to second on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard (24 points) while making his third straight appearance in a qualifying race, picking up an additional 10 points for a victory in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) in mid-December and 4 points for a runner-up in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill Downs in late November.

Mor Spirit races with his head low and wasn’t flashy in the Lewis, waiting until midstretch to overhaul rivals, but the prep served its purpose for the dark bay ridgling, who is certainly eligible to keep improving for Bob Baffert. The Hall of Fame trainer recorded his fourth Kentucky Derby victory last year with American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, and moved into a tie with D. Wayne Lukas and Henry Thompson for second all-time, two back of Ben Jones.

Baffert is readying for another serious assault upon the first Saturday in May, with Mor Spirit heading a deep roster of prospects.

Robert Lewis

Mor Spirit stalked in third, within a few lengths of pacesetter I Will Score, who established moderate opening splits of :23.49, :47.78 and 1:12.34 while being tracked by Uncle Lino in second. Gary Stevens guided Mor Spirit to the outside of the front-runners entering the stretch and always appeared to have his rivals measured.

But Mor Spirit didn’t pick up his foes right away, momentarily giving pause as he threatened to idle after straightening for home under a motionless Stevens. The jockey wanted to do as little as possible aboard the heavy favorite before finally urging his mount inside the final furlong. Mor Spirit went about his business when called upon, finishing up nicely as he edged clear under the wire.

Mor Spirit registered a career-best 99 BRIS Speed rating, a solid figure given the slow early fractions, and posted his second consecutive triple-digit Late Pace number (108) after completing the final five-sixteenths in 30.66 seconds.

I can understand how some observers came away underwhelmed by the performance; a nice win but nothing special. But the other camp believes Mor Spirit didn’t even get warmed up & has much more to offer.

Stevens and Baffert are big proponents of the latter contention:

“He wasn’t even blowing after the race. I haven’t been able to get him tired in the morning yet,” Stevens said. “Every time we step forward I hope I can find the bottom...but I don’t want to find the bottom of him until it’s time. I haven’t got close to that yet and that’s a good feeling. He seems to just do just enough for what’s in front of him.”

“He has that long stride, but in the mornings, he’s not a very good work horse. He’s sort of lazy,” Baffert said. “He needs a target and when he gets a target, he shuts it down, but today was perfect...He’s a big, strong horse so these races will help him. He holds his weight really well and he’s a good-feeling horse. We just have to keep him healthy. I feel like I have a really top 3-year-old.”

From the first crop of Eskendereya, who was poised to be an overwhelming Kentucky Derby favorite following smashing victories in the 2010 Wood Memorial (G1) and Fountain of Youth (G2) but wound up being withdrawn the week of the race due to a career-ending injury, Mor Spirit is out of the multiple stakes-winning Dixie Union mare Im a Dixie Girl. This is the same female family of 2015 champion 3-year-old filly Stellar Wind and Mor Spirit appears well-suited for classic distances.

A $650,000 2-year-old purchase, Mor Spirit is a Pennsylvania-bred. The last Kentucky Derby winner from the Keystone State was Smarty Jones.

Mor Spirit dropped his first start in a sprint before rolling to an easy decision in his two-turn bow, a maiden special weight at Santa Anita in late October. He jumped straight to stakes competition with a good second in the Kentucky Jockey Club over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs – the third-placer that evening, Mo Tom, came back to win the Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds.

He moved forward off the setback, returning three weeks later to capture the Los Alamitos Futurity in convincing fashion, and will attempt to keep building upon the Lewis. But Mor Spirit’s work ethic remains a concern. The competition promises to get much stiffer and I won’t be shocked to see him leave himself too much to do in an upcoming prep, but a loss may not be a bad thing; it could toughen up Mor Spirit for his main engagement on May 7.

I Will Score and Uncle Lino were both making their first start at two turns in the Lewis. I can’t envision either thriving at 1 ¼ miles this spring, but the promising colts could perform at a high level in other spots.


Danzing Candy made an excellent impression last Thursday, recording his second straight convincing tally when romping by 5 ¾ lengths in an entry-level allowance at Santa Anita. The Twirling Candy colt broke his maiden at seven furlongs on December 26, netting a 101 BRIS Speed rating for a 3 ¼-length decision, and he received a 98 while making his first two-turn start in the one-mile allowance.

Broodmare sire Songandaprayer isn’t associated with stamina, but Danzing Candy’s dam, Talkin and Singing, is a half-sister to Better Talk Now, winner of the 1 ½-mile Breeders’ Cup Turf. Cliff Sise Jr. isn’t known for his prowess with Kentucky Derby hopefuls, but the trainer has a good-looking prospect in Danzing Candy.

Shagaf is also headed to a stakes race off a nice allowance score, winning a one-turn mile event at Gulfstream Park on January 29. The Chad Brown-trained colt is now 2-for-2 and the Bernardini colt counts a couple of Belmont Stakes winners (Tabasco Cat and Temperence Hill) as broodmare sires of his second and third maternal dams.

Rally Cry, a rallying third after being shut off on the far turn, is another colt to watch from Shagaf’s allowance. A convincing maiden winner two starts back, the son of Uncle Mo is trained by Todd Pletcher.

Keep an eye on Cupid, a superb 5 3/4-length maiden scorer on Sunday for Baffert. By Tapit, the gray colt doesn’t possess a stout pedigree on the dam side, but he looked terrific stretching out to two turns in the 1 1/16-mile race and received a commendable 97 Speed rating.

Lookin for a Kiss proved up to the task when making his career debut at Gulfstream Saturday, powering away to a 1 ¼-length victory over a nice maiden field. From the first crop of Lookin at Lucky, the champion 2-year-old and 3-year-old of 2009-10, Lookin for Kiss provided Dale Romans with a rare first-out winner and earned a 93 Speed rating in the 6-furlong test. I came away impressed by the effort and Lookin for a Kiss is out of the Vindication mare Blowing Kisses, a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Hookedonthefeelin, the dam of Grade 1 winners Jimmy Creed and Pussycat Doll.


The final races in the “Prep Season” portion of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series are on tap this weekend, with Saturday’s El Camino Real Derby (G3) at Golden Gate Fields and Monday’s Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park awarding points on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the top four finishers. Point values will increase to 50-20-10-5 beginning with the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds on February 20.

Saturday’s Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs and Monday’s San Vicente (G2) aren’t qualifiers, but both races have Kentucky Derby implications. The 7-furlong San Vicente will feature a highly anticipated match-up between Nyquist and Exaggerator.

And Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager starts Thursday at noon (ET) and runs through 6 p.m. Sunday.

Top 10

1) Mohaymen – Holy Bull (G2) winner possesses an excellent late kick; Feb. 27 Fountain of Youth (G2) next

2) Mor Sprit – Returned with a nice Lewis (G3) win & rates as a serious contender for 4-time Kentucky Derby winner Baffert; March 12 San Felipe (G2) is possible

3) Brody’s Cause – Juvenile G1 winner could have more to offer at longer distances this spring for Romans; targeting March 12 Tampa Bay Derby (G2)

4) Exaggerator – Concluded juvenile campaign on a good note & expecting further improvement at age 3 from Curlin colt; meets Nyquist in Monday’s San Vicente

5) Greenpointcrusader – Taken out of his element on front end in paceless Holy Bull & recorded a highly respectable runner-up effort; targeting one more prep in late March/early April

6) Dancing Candy – New addition impressively stretched out to two turns in recent allowance score & has earned nice BRIS Speed numbers (101 and 98); could make stakes bow in San Felipe

7) Zulu – Bernardini colt rates as Todd Pletcher’s leading hopeful presently, easily defeating maiden & allowance foes in a pair of Gulfstream starts; makes stakes & 2-turn bow in Fountain of Youth

8) Smokey Image – California-bred speedster is perfect from six start & has stamina influences in his pedigree; scheduled to test open rivals in San Felipe

9) Cupid – Still has much to prove for Baffert but loved how Tapit colt broke his maiden stretching out two turns recently; expect him to jump straight to stakes company next time

10) Mo Tom – Fair Grounds stakes winner brings a big closing kick to the table; likely favorite in Feb. 20 Risen Star


Here are my previous Kentucky Derby Reports:

February 3: Mohaymen justifies star billing

January 20: Stakes-experience proves valuable

January 13: Sham winner doesn’t run fast but plenty of time remains

January 7: January brings a sense of anticipation