Saturday was a major day in horse racing, and not necessarily because of the horses that ran.
The 3-year-old picture at the Kentucky Derby was thrown askew when trainer Bob Baffert announced that his star colt, McKinzie, will not run in the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday. The colt suffered an unspecified back-leg injury and his status beyond Saturday is unknown.
If McKinzie is out, his place near the top could be taken by Mendelssohn, who won the $2 million UAE Derby, or Audible, who had a convincing win Saturday in the $1 million Florida Derby.
Both horses have a qualified for a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Audible proved that his win in the Holy Bull Stakes in early February was no fluke. He stayed mid-pack until the midpoint on the far turn when he turned it on, moved even at the top of the stretch, and cruised to a three-length win.
Mendelssohn was even more impressive with an 18¾-length victory that set a track record at 1 3/16 miles and beat the race record by 2.27 seconds. His connections — including world renowned trainer Aidan O’Brien — have coveted a trip back to Louisville, and the horse’s presence will add mystery to the race. Traditionally, horses shipping from overseas have not fared well in the Derby.
A case in point is Thunder Snow. He won last year’s UAE Derby, but when he ran in the Kentucky Derby, he bucked out of the gate and was pulled up a few strides down the track. He just didn’t want to run. But on Saturday, he won the $10 million Dubai World Cup by 5¾ lengths.
Finishing second in Dubai was West Coast, the presumptive favorite — gambling is illegal in the United Arab Emirates — followed by Mubtaahij (both trained by Baffert) and Pavel, who shipped from Santa Anita, running for Doug O’Neill.
The loss of McKinzie from the Santa Anita Derby keeps the anticipated rematch of the colt and Bolt d’Oro from happening. McKinzie’s future beyond that is unknown.
“We don’t know if he did it in the stall or what because he was fine,” Baffert told reporters in Dubai after the running of the World Cup. “They noticed he was a little bit off. He didn’t go to the track. The X-rays are clean. Ankles look good, hocks [looked good] — something came up high [on the leg] on the nuke scan. When he got back, he 100% jogged fine. I don’t know what it was, but we’re being very cautious. It’s day by day, week by week.”
McKinzie has 40 qualifying points, which is enough for him to make the Kentucky Derby field of 20. But the race would come eight weeks after the San Felipe, and it would be a long time to keep the colt sharp for the most important race in the world.
Baffert’s other star in the-making, Justify, may be moved to the Santa Anita Derby. The colt has shown great promise in only two starts after being unraced as a 2-year-old. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby after not racing at 2 since Apollo in 1882. Justify is scheduled to run in the Arkansas Derby on April 14. Baffert will make a decision after working Justify on Monday.
Audible’s win in the Florida Derby should bring back memories for trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, who did the Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby double last year with Always Dreaming. Three of the last five Florida Derby winners have gone on to win at Churchill Downs.
Audible, as the favorite, paid $5.20 to win in the nine-horse 1 1/8-mile race. Hofburg finished second and Mississippi was third.
“It was pretty easy once he got the lead,” Velazquez said. “The way he ran today was definitely impressive. The farther he goes, the better he gets. A mile and a quarter (the Kentucky Derby distance) won’t be a problem.”
Pletcher, like Baffert, has a few horses that can qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Noble Indy won the Louisiana Derby and Magnum Moon, unbeaten in three starts, made the field by winning the Rebel Stakes. He also has horses, including Vino Rosso, Marconi and Gido, who are running in major stakes the next two weekends.
“There’s a lot of very good horses out there,” Pletcher said. “Already with major preps to go, we’ve got Mendelssohn winning the UAE Derby. … It’s a different kind of pressure when you have five. But there is a lot of pressure when you only have one.”
Pletcher, who has won two Kentucky Derbies, also knows the road to the Derby can be perilous.
“We’re fortunate to have the ones that we do but the next one is very tough and it’s a deep crop,” Pletcher said. “I just hope we have a nice five weeks from here.”
The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and BlueGrass Stakes at Keeneland will join the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday on what could be another wild weekend.