American Pharoah went down in history last year with the second-ever fastest Kentucky Derby time by a Triple Crown winner.
American Pharoah closed the 2015 Derby with a time of 2:03.02, chasing a record time of 1:59.40, set by Secretariat in 1973. The big bay horse went on to win both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, making him the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
This year, American Pharoah’s trainer Bob Baffert brings a dark horse candidate — literally — named Mor Spirit to Churchill Downs, in hopes of repeating history.
— Mary M Meek (@moonwalker24) April 22, 2016
Baffert is no stranger to the Derby, having trained a total of four past winners.
Mor Spirit carries a record of three wins and four seconds in seven starts, meaning he has never finished worse than second during his career. The colt is ridden by Gary Stevens and owned by Michael Lund Petersen, co-founder of Pandora Jewelry.
— San Juan Ranch (@SanJuanRanch) April 29, 2016
Baffert and Stevens worked together and won the 1997 Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm. Baffert said he knows this could be his last chance at a Derby run.
“It’s so hard to get here. We’ve been in 16 of them now (and) so fortunate to have won four. You have to be so lucky, and I was just so relieved when we finally did get engaged again and win the Derby (last year).”
A horse racing Hall of Famer, Gary Stevens became most recognizable to the public when he played the role of jockey George Woolf in the 2003 movie Seabiscuit.
Stevens, 53, has ridden three horses to Derby wins. According to the Courier Journal, he “has reached an age when most athletes – jockeys, too – are past their prime.”
Gary Stevens was very muddy after his 2nd place finish on Mor Spirit in the SA Derby, KY Derby next for the duo. pic.twitter.com/h5lwik6Utk
— Eric DeCoster (@Hawksnhorses) April 11, 2016
But despite having twelve knee surgeries culminating in a full knee replacement, Stevens, known as racing’s “bionic man” has hopes to crush the Kentucky Derby on a horse he likes well, and considers one of the favorites to win.
“You couldn’t make this story up,” he said after Mor Spirit’s workout on Tuesday.
“He was very aggressive going to the pole, which is not always him. He’s a little quirky sometimes.”
Mor Spirit runs with his head down, a distinctive characteristic that Courier Journal said is “noticeably lower to the ground than most thoroughbreds.”
The dark bay colt, who was born on April Fool’s Day in 2013, is a Grade I winner. He ran second in the Santa Anita Derby to Exaggerator, one of his nineteen competitors in the Kentucky Derby.
Stevens said that the jury is still out on Mor Spirit, because he didn’t like the mud spraying in his face, so he didn’t give his all in the Santa Anita.
“We haven’t got to the bottom of him. In the Santa Anita Derby, I won’t say that he didn’t like the surface, but he didn’t like the kick back coming back. I felt like he ran about 80 percent for me and still finished second. He’s got some gears and I’ve felt them in the morning and I’ve felt them in the afternoon. Unfortunately I didn’t feel them in the Santa Anita Derby so hopefully he brings the ‘A’ game.”
Lady and the Track news described Mor Spirit as “a grinder.”
“Mor Spirit… looks like he wants to go long. In fact, he can take advantage of his running style to just grind and grind, pass the tired front runners, and hold off the closers. Mor Spirit is a horse with little acceleration.”
But Stevens disagrees with that analysis.
“He’s deceivingly quick. Everybody thinks he’s a plodder. He’s not.”
Gary Stevens on Mor Spirit’s work “Bob hollered at me when we pulled up over the radio, he said ‘Man, we’ve got a shot!’” (Cont)
— horseracinghl (@horseracinghl) May 2, 2016
Baffert praised Stevens’ abilities as a jockey.
“Gary’s very focused. He knows what we need to do. We’re getting to know this horse every time he runs, and it’s fun with Gary. We’ve been here, and we’re getting older. We appreciate it more. We’re enjoying it more. We used to come in here all trying to win one of these things. But once you’ve been there so many times, you know what you need to do to stay focused and enjoy yourself as long as everything is going smooth. That’s the key.”
“I can’t get the horse tired and that’s a good thing when you’re going a mile and a quarter,” Stevens said. “I don’t think that distance is going to be a problem but he’s come along at the right time. This has been the focus since last year in December; we’ve been pointing the Derby.”
Mor Spirit ran his last practice race on Monday, and according to Bloodhorse, his performance excited both jockey and trainer. Stevens said the horse hit an unexpected burst of enthusiasm when running against the big grey named Jimbo Fallon.
“He got really aggressive going to the 4 1/2 pole and I hollered to David Lopez (on Jimbo Fallon). I said ‘Get going, buddy,’ because my horse grabbed me. David went on, I got control of my horse, and heading into the stretch, he turned into Pac Man and was giving me all I wanted.”
Baffert said, “He looked great today.
“He moves over the surface here much better than Santa Anita, and that’s half the battle, that they like it. I’ve brought horses here before that were just never comfortable with it, but he looked great today. He’s coming into the race the right way, and he tries hard. He runs every time. Right when you think he’s not running, all the sudden he’ll put that head down. I feel that he’s in a position where he’s going to run his race, and we’ll see if he’s good enough.”
Mor Spirit will compete with 19 other Thoroughbreds, including the 2016 favorite, Nyquist.
The Kentucky Derby airs Saturday May 7 at 4.00 p.m. EST.
[Photo by Garry Jones/AP]