Mendelssohn rates as strongest international threat for Kentucky Derby glory

May 03, 2018 Kellie Reilly/

If no horse based outside of the Western Hemisphere has ever won the Kentucky Derby (G1), it’s equally true that none has brought the credentials of Mendelssohn.

Between his pedigree, as a Scat Daddy half-brother to four-time U.S. champion Beholder and successful young sire Into Mischief; proven international class, as the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1); and dirt ability as an 18 1/2-length romper in the UAE Derby (G2) in track-record time, the Aidan O’Brien trainee boasts arguably the most compelling profile of any foreign shipper.

Of course, accomplished European invaders have flopped in the Derby, the chief examples being France’s Arazi (1992) and Ireland’s Johannesburg (2002), himself trained by O’Brien in his first-ever attempt at the Run for the Roses. Arazi and Johannesburg each reigned as a transatlantic champion two-year-old colt, pairing dominance at home with devastating Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) victories on dirt. In so doing, both established that they could dismiss the best American dirt horses of their generation.

But one key point differentiates them from Mendelssohn. As brilliant as Arazi and Johannesburg had been the previous fall, there was no guarantee either would replicate that the following spring. Arazi had undergone surgery on both knees after the Breeders’ Cup, and he had just a single prep race for trainer Francois Boutin, a one-mile listed stakes at the French racecourse Saint-Cloud. He simply was not the same horse when returning to Churchill Downs, the scene of his Breeders’ Cup heroics, for the Derby, and he checked in eighth behind Lil E. Tee. Arazi won only once more before retiring to stud.

Johannesburg, ironically Mendelssohn’s paternal grandsire, encountered another kind of challenge. As an unbeaten juvenile of exceptional speed and precocity, he did not shape as the type of horse to develop into a 1 1/4-mile classic contender. Johannesburg had only one Derby prep race, suffering his first loss when outdueled by the older filly Rebelline in the Gladness S. (G3) at Ireland’s historic Curragh. Eighth behind War Emblem in the Derby, Johannesburg reverted to sprinting in the Golden Jubilee (G1) at Royal Ascot, finished ninth, and never raced again. But he’s left a terrific legacy at stud through his son Scat Daddy, the sire of Mendelssohn, Derby favorite Justify, Flameaway, and Combatant.

Mendelssohn was more of a work in progress than Johannesburg or Arazi at two, and that’s actually in his favor here. He’s accordingly taken the leap forward that they never made at three.

Before diving into the record of other horses coming by way of Europe or Dubai, let’s note the success of those with international connections closer to our doorstep.

In decades past, internationally-raced Derby hopefuls often came from elsewhere in the Americas. Two went on to win the Derby, Venezuelan-based Canonero II (1971) and Puerto Rican star Bold Forbes (1976) (who counts as “foreign raced” in the Derby media guide because Puerto Rico is outside the continental United States although still obviously U.S. territory).

Although Canonero prepped in Venezuela, Bold Forbes had already left Puerto Rico by midsummer of his juvenile campaign. Trained for the balance of his career by Hall of Famer Laz Barrera (best known for his tutelage of Triple Crown sweeper Affirmed), Bold Forbes competed in California and New York, and won the Wood Memorial (G1) on the way to Churchill Downs.

Mister Frisky tried to emulate Bold Forbes as a Puerto Rican celebrity who joined Barrera and captured a major prep, the 1990 Santa Anita Derby (G1). But lightning did not strike twice, and Mister Frisky wound up eighth behind Unbridled in the Kentucky Derby. A few horses with starts in Mexico and Panama have likewise attempted the Run for the Roses but were unplaced.

In the succeeding decades, the locus of international interest has shifted to Europe and the Middle East, especially after the creation of the UAE Derby in 2000 as a supporting feature on Dubai World Cup night. This is the more relevant frame of reference for Mendelssohn.

European-based horses had launched the odd sortie before. In 1974, *Sir Tristram shipped in from France for a prep at Churchill, finishing seventh, but didn’t improve on that effort when 11th to the same rival – Cannonade – in the Derby. That was an ambitious spot for a horse who was not near top class at home. Sir Tristram’s story has a happier ending, for he was exported to New Zealand and became a legendary sire.

Twelve years later, British invader Bold Arrangement took runner-up honors behind Ferdinand in the 1986 Derby, still the best finish by a European. The Clive Brittain trainee had smart form as a juvenile. The winner of the 1985 Solario S. at Sandown, he proved himself at a higher level when just missing in France’s Grand Criterium (G1). Bold Arrangement was deprived of another Group 1 second when disqualified to fourth in the William Hill Futurity (G1) at Doncaster, and he was also third in the Prix de la Salamandre (G1). 

Bold Arrangement had the benefit of two preps for the Derby. Third versus older horses at Doncaster, he shipped in early and posted an encouraging third in the Blue Grass (G1), an effort that showed the colt with a purely turf pedigree could handle the dirt. After his honorable performance at Churchill, Bold Arrangement returned home to compete in the original Derby (G1) at Epsom, where he was well beaten.

Dr Devious took a swing at the same double in 1992, striking out at Churchill but connecting at Epsom. A top British two-year-old, Dr Devious landed the prestigious Dewhurst (G1) (a race Mendelssohn finished second in at Newmarket), the Vintage (G3) at Glorious Goodwood, and the Superlative, but was untested on dirt. Privately purchased as a birthday present for Sid Craig by his wife, Jenny, Dr Devious prepped with a runner-up effort in Newmarket’s Craven (G3). He made his dirt, and American, debut for Hall of Famer Ron McAnally in the Kentucky Derby and finished seventh. Returned to British trainer Peter Chapple-Hyam, Dr Devious garnered the Epsom Derby, the only horse to win the “Blue Riband” after trying his luck in the Kentucky Derby. Later that fall, he annexed the Leopardstown prize we know now as the Irish Champion (G1).

Three internationals turned up for the 1995 edition. Eltish, runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for the legendary Sir Henry Cecil, had just the one prep at home in England (a third in Newmarket’s Feilden S.) and wound up sixth behind Thunder Gulch. Chapple-Hyam sent over Citadeed, who didn’t have as solid a resume as Group 2 victor Eltish, and he reported home ninth. That Derby also witnessed the first runner from Japan, Ski Captain, who crossed the wire 14th in his dirt experiment.

We can skip the ensuing list of European-raced horses who took up residence stateside and only later contested the Derby for new trainers. The one demanding mention in this category is Wilko, the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile upsetter who did not win again and crossed the wire sixth behind Giacomo.  

Wilko’s original trainer, Jeremy Noseda, had another interesting prospect for the 2010 Derby in Awesome Act. Fourth in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, Awesome Act made a sparkling dirt debut in the Gotham (G3). But he regressed when a poor third in the Wood Memorial, was virtually eased behind Super Saver in the Churchill slop, and exited with an injury.

Otherwise, in recent years international shippers have chosen the Dubai route to the Derby.

Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, not surprisingly, was the first to try. Worldly Manner wintered, but did not have an official race, in Dubai en route to finishing seventh to Charismatic in 1999. The next year, Godolphin dispatched China Visit and Curule, the winner and third-placer from the inaugural UAE Derby, who finished sixth and seventh at Churchill. China Visit was a French debut winner who was making only his third career start in the Kentucky Derby, while Curule had raced exclusively in Dubai.

Godolphin’s subsequent UAE Derby winners have not even fared as well as China Visit. Express Tour was eighth in 2001; Essence of Dubai was ninth in 2002; Regal Ransom and Desert Party, the top two in the UAE Derby, were only eighth and 14th at Churchill; and most recently there was the mercurial Thunder Snow (2017), who promised to do so much better if only he hadn’t bucked in the mud and forced Christophe Soumillon to pull him up.

Thunder Snow, as a French Group 1 winner at two, had top-level credibility – an asset other UAE Derby victors trying the Kentucky Derby lacked – making his misadventure all the more disappointing.

Japan’s Lani, for instance, was only fifth in the listed Hyacinth S. at Tokyo before capturing a subpar renewal of the UAE Derby in 2016. Thus he had class concerns going into his ninth in the Kentucky Derby, and even though he was a better fifth in the Preakness (G1) and third in the Belmont (G1), he did not back up that form upon his return home.

The 2015 UAE Derby romper, Mubtaahij, was an exciting type for South African horseman Mike de Kock. But he began the Dubai season as a twice-raced maiden, with no past form to speak of. Mubtaahij didn’t do himself justice when eighth at Churchill Downs, turned in a fairer fourth to Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the Belmont, and did not develop as a proper Grade/Group 1 performer until he was older.

O’Brien initially didn’t follow the UAE-to-Kentucky path. Back in 2002, he kept his hopefuls nearer to home. Johannesburg prepped in the aforementioned Gladness and his stablemate Castle Gandolfo scored in his lone tune-up at Lingfield. Unlike Johannesburg, Castle Gandolfo had proven stamina at two, as the Beresford (G3) winner who was runner-up in the Racing Post Trophy (G1) (to none other than superstar High Chaparral) and the Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1). But Castle Gandolfo did not transfer that form to the Churchill dirt, winding up beaten farther than Johannesburg in 12th.

The Ballydoyle maestro did not send another runner to the Kentucky Derby for nine years, but in 2011-13, O’Brien fielded three straight contenders who prepped in the UAE Derby (then on Meydan’s old synthetic surface). All three had previously competed in a Breeders’ Cup race, so you can see the evolution of the pattern.

Master of Hounds, sixth in the 2010 Juvenile Turf, just missed in the 2011 UAE Derby, and finished fifth to Animal Kingdom at Churchill – O’Brien’s best Kentucky Derby result so far. Daddy Long Legs, a remote 12th in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, captured the 2012 UAE Derby but again flopped on dirt when eased at Churchill Downs. Lines of Battle, a wide-trip seventh in the 2012 Juvenile Turf, scored in the 2013 UAE Derby before winding up seventh to Orb in Louisville.

As that lengthy history reveals, other shippers from the “Old World” have not offered the total package that Mendelssohn does. Those with dirt ability rarely had the established class. And those of proven Grade/Group 1 ability usually had some kind of mark against them, whether readiness, stamina, or dirt proficiency. If Thunder Snow and Bold Arrangement came closest to meeting the prerequisites, they did not have anywhere near the jaw-dropping dirt performance Mendelssohn can claim.

That’s not to diminish the stiff task that Mendelssohn faces in trying to defy history as the first European-based winner, and the first to use Dubai as a springboard to Derby glory. He has to duplicate his stunning effort at Meydan against a far deeper field, in a more taxing pace scrum, in one of the best editions of the “Run for the Roses” in memory. But in the historical context of past international shippers, he is uniquely qualified for this task.

Photos courtesy of Coady Photography

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