Bob Baffert is heading back to the Kentucky Derby, but it won't be quite the same as last year. Last year he had the two best horses in the field heading into the race, and one of them went on to win the Triple Crown. He could have two more horses this year, but with respect to Mor Spirit and potentially Cupid, neither is American Pharoah. That's no insult, of course - very few horses in my lifetime have been anything like American Pharoah. That's not to say that Baffert doesn't have a chance, though. This horse has no shortage of talent - though he has struggled to maximize that talent his last couple of times out. So, can Mor Spirit win the Kentucky Derby?
Last race: The Santa Anita Derby is a very difficult race to attach meaning to this year. On the surface it should be clear - Mor Spirit was the favorite, but he wound up far behind the winner, Exaggerator, in second. He was no match on the day, and that could cause concern about what comes next. It's not that simple, though. I have now watched the Santa Anita Derby replay six or seven times, and each time I have come away a little more impressed with this horse. The track was very sloppy and it was raining. Exaggerator has done well in the past on off tracks, and he did again on this day - he loved it. Mor Spirit really didn't like it. It wasn't that he didn't like getting hit with spray - at least not as much as other horses felt that way. He just couldn't find his traction, though. You could tell he wasn't comfortable because he didn't trust his feet. Despite that, and despite sticking reasonably close to a truly suicidal early pace, the horse kept fighting and actually moved forward in the stretch to claim second by a decent margin. Given how much he struggled to find footing, the result showed a lot of heart. He was clearly second best on far from his best day against a horse that was in his element. It could certainly have been worse.
Prior experience: The one thing you sure can't know this horse for is his consistency. He has run seven times and has never finished worse than second - three wins and four runner-up showings. He broke his maiden in his second try at Santa Anita in October before heading to Kentucky for his stakes debut in the Kentucky Jockey Club. He was a solid second. Then it was back to California for nice wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity and the Robert B. Lewis. Leading into the Santa Anita Derby he was second in the San Felipe behind Danzig Candy after a troubled trip. Add it all up and you have a solid career - not one that guarantees success but one that doesn't have real low points or warning signs. He's traveled. He's gone two turns many times and more than a mile five times. He's faced some decent horses. Solid.
Trainer: I don't really need to say much about Bob Baffert, do I? The guy is 10 months removed from winning the freaking Triple Crown. Ignore that accomplishment entirely and the guy still has nine other Triple Crown race wins, including three in the Derby. He's good. Very, very good. And he knows how to be at his best on the first Saturday of May. He's a very big asset to this - or any - horse.
Jockey: Gary Stevens is every bit as much of a legend as a rider as Baffert is as a trainer. He has won each Triple Crown race three times - and that is despite taking more than eight years off because of bad knees and despite having recently had one of those knees replaced. He just turned 53, and he doesn't ride anything close to a busy schedule these days, but he is still at his best on big days. Last year he had just 51 wins all year, but 21 of them were in graded stakes - the highest level of competition possible. This year his ratio is even better - five of his 10 wins have been in graded company. If I had to choose one guy to ride my horse in one huge race on one day I would pick Stevens every day and without hesitation.
Breeding: The breeding is solid. Mor Spirit is a son of Eskendereya, who was likely to be the Kentucky Derby favorite in 2010 after winning the Wood Memorial by nearly 10 lengths, but he was injured before the Derby and never ran again. The start to his stud career hasn't been great, and he was just sold and sent to Japan, but he provides plenty of stamina. Mor Spirit's damsire is Dixie Union, a winner of the Haskell who sired Belmont winner Union Rags. There is plenty of stamina there, too. The distance isn't a particular concern for this horse.
Odds: BetOnline has Mor Spirit at +1050 to win the Kentucky Derby, which places him tied for fourth among the field. In the final official Kentucky Derby futures pool, held the week before the Santa Anita Derby, he opened at 12/1 on the morning line and dropped to 11/1.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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