Last week, a planned workout for Mor Spirit went awry when he just wasn’t focused or into it. Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens eased him, out of an abundance of caution, to make sure that he was all right.
Mor Spirit was in fact physically fine – a pair of ear plugs apparently lulled him too much and took him out of the working frame of mind, according to his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert.
If you knew Mor Spirit’s character, you wouldn’t be surprised in the least that he does what he wants. He’s been that way his whole young life. That’s not out of any ill will or meanness, however; it’s just that he’s his own horse, so to speak. You might say that he keeps his own counsel.
Mor Spirit was born at the famed Derry Meeting Farm in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of a raft of top-class horses, led by legendary sires Danzig and Storm Cat (his own paternal great-grandsire). Bred by Stuart Grant’s Elkstone Group, Mor Spirit is by Storm Cat’s grandson Eskendereya (a Kentucky stallion before his export to Japan) and out of the multiple stakes-winning mare Im a Dixie Girl.
Just two weeks after his birth, the foal moved with his dam to Windham Hill Farm near Paris, Kentucky, where Bev Grovert raised him until he was sold as a yearling.
Grovert gives us insight into the youngster’s personality.
“Always a very confident young horse, very sure of himself,” she recalled.
“He had his own opinion about life,” the type who “didn’t allow you to make any mistakes.”
The dark bay was “always a very dominant young horse,” inhabiting “his world,” on his own terms.
“He wasn’t a horse you ever forced to do anything,” Grovert added. “He did things in his own fashion.”
For a young horse just learning his way, it’s important to nurture him carefully and thoughtfully, not discourage him or crush his spirit. In this regard, Grovert praised his groom for having a light touch with the self-willed baby.
“He just laughed at his antics, didn’t punish him.
“That’s how we raise all our horses. They’re not spoiled; there are certain things they have to be able to do. But we like to raise healthy, cheerful horses with enough confidence to get the job done.”
A good-looking yearling, he was entered in the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July Sale.
Grant revealed that he “got lots of interest,” prompting projections that he’d sell in the “$150-200,000 range.”
But a not-so-funny thing happened before he could even make his way to the sales ring.
Mor Spirit being a “rambunctious child,” Grant said that he “kicked the stall that morning (of the day he was scheduled to sell) and came up dead lame.”
Grant had no choice but to withdraw him from the sale. A few prospective buyers asked why they scratched him, disappointed at not having the chance to bid on him.
“He couldn’t walk from the barn to the ring.”
The incident turned out to be minor. A few days later, Grant related, he was perfectly sound, running around his paddock. It was just a classic case of bad timing.
Rerouted to Fasig-Tipton Kentucky’s October Sale, which doesn’t have as high a profile as the July Sale, he brought just $85,000.
“Thank you very much,” Grant deadpanned, quipping that “he wasn’t my favorite yearling that year” after undercutting his own value so dramatically.
The beneficiaries of this twist of fate were the buyers, Wavertree Stables’ Ciaran Dunne and his Red Wings partnership, who picked up a promising prospect for a bargain price in hopes of reselling for a profit. This part of the trade is called “pinhooking.” When purchasing yearlings, these “pinhookers” are looking toward the 2-year-olds in training sales coming up the following spring, where last year’s ducklings may be transformed into highly desirable swans.
And another twist, revealing the interconnectedness of racing: that Red Wings partnership involves Paul and Zillah Reddam, the owners of champion Nyquist. The partnership is named for Reddam’s favorite hockey team, just as Nyquist is named after the Detroit Red Wings star. Who would have thought that Nyquist and Mor Spirit would turn out to be future Kentucky Derby (G1) rivals?
Like Grovert, who said that Mor Spirit “moved like a cat,” Dunne also commented on what a “great mover” the youngster was as he went through his early training for Fasig-Tipton’s Florida Sale.
The 2-year-old was “very professional from the outset” and “only drew attention to himself while training, as his works were always better than the rest,” Dunne said.
“He was the same at the sale, quickly figuring out the routine. He was a joy to show as he always set himself up perfectly and never got unnerved or ruffled.”
You can watch his drill at the under tack show, where the juveniles turn on the speed in front of the talent scouts. He worked one furlong in a sharp :10 1/5 at Gulfstream Park, just a fifth of a second off the fastest time:
Although the progeny of Eskendereya generally weren’t a hot property at the sales, this one was an exception. He qualified as a pinhooking “home run” by bringing $650,000 – the most expensive offspring of his sire sold at public auction.
His new owner, Michael Lund Petersen, sent him to Baffert and gave him the name we all know him by, “Mor Spirit.”
Grovert is delighted that Mor Spirit is in Baffert’s care.
Describing Mor Spirit as “a horseman’s horse,” she emphasized that he requires “a good horseman working with him. A bad horseman would ruin him.
“If you trained this horse in one mode, it wouldn’t work,” Grovert observed.
A good horseman knows “how to channel him, channel his energy, channel his thought pattern” – in other words, persuade him that it’s his idea to do something.
“Not lazy” and “not a rogue,” Mor Spirit is simply an exceptional type who makes his own rules.
“An exceptional human being or an exceptional athlete is not one who follows standard procedure. They’re better than that.”
Mor Spirit’s dam is of a similarly “tough” mindset, so the proverbial apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Im a Dixie Girl is carrying a full sibling to Mor Spirit, and Grant reports that she is due to foal within the next week. Her next mate has a Baffert connection too. Im a Dixie Girl will be bred to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Side-view photo of Mor Spirit as a baby (center, with his dam just behind him) in the paddock, courtesy of Windham Hill Farm’s Bev Grovert.
Sales ring screenshot from Fasig-Tipton Florida video.