After saddling the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years in American Pharoah, it would be understandable if Bob Baffert had a leaner year in the 2016 classics. But the Hall of Famer has another prime prospect in Michael Lund Petersen’s Mor Spirit.

By Eskendereya, who was the raging Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite in 2010 until his career-ending injury, Mor Spirit is on a quest for the roses that his sire never had the chance to seek. And there’s even a tenuous connection to American Pharoah: like the Triple Crown champion, Eskendereya was himself campaigned by Ahmed Zayat.

As the Triple Crown trail remorselessly teaches, however, you can’t get ahead of yourself at this early stage. Mor Spirit has shown promise by finishing second in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), where on-the-pace tactics didn’t suit, and coming right back to capture the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) in his preferred closing style. But the chase for Derby points gets even more serious from now on, beginning with his sophomore bow in Saturday’s Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita.

“This is when you start heading to the deeper part of the pool,” Baffert told Santa Anita’s Ed Golden.

“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 has a lot of tactical speed but you can’t let him use it too early.

“We’re teaching him to sit and wait. He’s a big horse and beautifully made. He’s got a really long stride. He’ll be best going a mile and an eighth and further.”

Mor Spirit’s regular rider, fellow Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, is also taken with his stride.

“He’s doing really well,” Stevens said. “He’s training forwardly since the Futurity and I’m looking forward to his first start since December, so we’re excited.

“He’s got a huge stride and beautiful action.”

A $650,000 Fasig-Tipton Florida purchase as a 2-year-old in training, Mor Spirit is out of I’m a Dixie Girl, who was a multiple stakes winner and runner-up in the Astarita (G3) as a juvenile. He hails from the extended family of recently crowned champion filly Stellar Wind and Grade 1 scorer Great Hunter, hero of the 2007 running of the Lewis.

Baffert has won the Lewis five times. General Challenge (1999), who was also ridden by Stevens, and Domestic Dispute (2003) scored when the race was still known as the Santa Catalina. Since it was renamed in Lewis’ memory, the trainer won with Pioneerof the Nile (American Pharoah’s sire) in 2009, Flashback (2013) and Dortmund (2015).

It would be fitting for Baffert and Stevens to combine to win the Lewis again, since they were the trainer/jockey tandem associated with Lewis’ Hall of Famer Silver Charm, who came agonizingly close to landing the Triple Crown in 1997.

Coincidentally, none of Baffert’s four Derby winners competed in the Lewis. Silver Charm and Real Quiet (1998) limbered up in other preps in California. War Emblem wasn’t even trained by Baffert until just prior to the 2002 Derby, so his Louisiana-to-Illinois path is an outlier. American Pharoah, of course, took the Oaklawn Park route and dominated the Rebel (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) en route to Triple Crown glory.

Nothing should be inferred about Mor Spirit from that factoid, since none of Baffert’s Derby winners had prepped at Oaklawn until American Pharoah came along. Each horse is an individual who requires a schedule that fits him.

Like Pioneerof the Nile and Dortmund, Mor Spirit enters the Lewis off a victory in the aforementioned Futurity, and that’s a very positive profile to have. Both Pioneerof the Nile and Dortmund went on to sweep the San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1) before placing in the Kentucky Derby. 

Photo courtesy of Benoit.