What Happened To Mendelssohn?

What Happened To Mendelssohn??

Going into the Kentucky Derby, there were a lot of potential “firsts” in play. Justify, the pre-race favorite (5/2), would have been the first unraced two-year-old in to win the Run for the Roses since 1882. Firenze Fire would have been the “least expensive” horse ($20,000) to ever win the race, adjusted for inflation. Magnum Moon would have been the first May-born pony to win the Derby is nearly 20 years. And Mendelssohn would have been the first European-trained horse to ever wear the rose garland. Well, Justify did in fact break the “curse of Apollo” and win the Derby. But Mendelssohn – with 4/1 odds, the second best in the field – didn’t even come close. So what happened to Mendelssohn?

The Kentucky Derby happened to Mendelssohn. Even though horse racing originated as a major wager-based pastime in the UK, over the last century and a half, it has been the American Grade I stakes races that have dominated the industry as the very top of the sport. Mendelssohn, who won the UAE Derby by a ridiculous 18.5 lengths while setting a course record, did so against a weak field of tier-2 talent. No horse that won the UAE has ever won the Kentucky Derby, a streak that now rises to 14. But Mendelssohn didn’t just lose the Kentucky Derby – he finished dead last in the field of 20, one of the worst performances of a top-three favorite in the history of the race.

Nobody knows exactly what happened to Mendelssohn on Derby Day. If you watched the telecast, you could see that he was a bit agitated, trotting sidewise during the introductions in front of the crowd. Evidently, that agitation continued into the gate, with trainer Aidan O’Brien suggesting that crowd noise (there were 150,000 spectators in attendance) – and the sound of the rain hitting all those rain coats in the grandstands – made for a much louder experience than Mendelssohn (or his jockey, Ryan Moore) had been prepared for.

However, the key problems were likely not crowd noise, albeit such may have been a factor. Instead, for Mendelssohn, there were two significant issues in play. First was his gate draw: Mendelssohn started from Gate 14, a position from where only two horses have ever won the Derby (the last being Carry Back in 1961). That, coupled with the three inches of rain that soaked the Derby track and made it the sloppiest race in the history of the event, really taxed Mendelssohn’s stamina and poise.

As soon as the gates were opened for the start of the race, Mendelssohn – in his jockey’s mad dash for the inside position – collided with Magnum Moon, who himself was a pre-race top contender at 13/1 odds. From there, things only got worse for both horses. While Mendelssohn made a mid-race charge all the way into sixth position, he quickly became visibly agitated with all the mud flying into his face, and he faded from the pack as quickly as he came up, finishing just behind Magnum Moon, some 73 lengths behind winner Justify.

The rain and slop angle is particularly interesting given that Mendelssohn, a horse trained in the UK where it rains all the time, would presumably be used to such saturated tracks unless he was intentionally withheld from performing in suboptimal conditions. Indeed, such was the thinking of much of the betting public, as when the rain started coming down over Churchill Downs, Mendelssohn’s odds went from 5/1 to 4/1. Apparently, lots and lots of horseplayers had the wrong idea with what seemed like an obvious handicapping edge.

What many in the betting community – particularly casual bettors – didn’t know was that the Kentucky Derby would be Mendelssohn’s first start on a natural dirt track (having raced only on polytrack and turf surfaces before). Mendelssohn not only had zero experience running in the mud, but he’d never even run on dirt!

As for Mendelssohn’s future, that doesn’t include participation in either of the remaining Triple Crown races, and for good reason. If what O’Brien says about his colt – that he was spooked by the size and volume of the crowd – is true, then he wouldn’t get much of a reprieve from the crowds expected to be in play at the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes – particularly if Justify takes the Preakness in two weeks’ time to set up a potential Triple Crown win at the Belmont. (Additionally, both of those races are also on dirt tracks, which are clearly outside of Mendelssohn’s wheelhouse.)

Like O’Brien said, the Derby – and its Triple Crown brethren – are a “different level of intensity.” All that notwithstanding, O’Brien hopes to practice Mendelssohn on dirt for the rest of the year, hoping to have him ready for the 2018 Breeder’s Cup World Championships, which will be held November 3, 2018, at Churchill Downs. USA online sportsbooks hopes the second time will be the charm for Mendelssohn.