Bold Arrangement owns the best European finish, placing second in 1986. Arazi, heavily favored in 1992, flamed out in eighth. O’Brien, renowned as the “Master of Ballydoyle,” misfired with all five previous starters. He began his quest with Johannesburg, who finished eighth, and Castle Gandolfo, who finished 12th, in 2002. Master of Hounds provided his best result, fifth in 2011. Daddy Long Legs did not finish in 2012 before Lines of Battle showed little fight finishing seventh in 2013.
That record of futility stands out in contrast to what O’Brien, 48, has achieved at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. He ranks third in victories (12) and earnings ($22,025,590).
O’Brien said of his Derby aspirations: “It’s something we couldn’t really dream about.”
Mendelssohn already boasts about $1.9 million in earnings through seven starts. He appears to be better equipped for the stern mile-and-a-quarter challenge than his predecessors. “He has a top-line pedigree, is a great looker, a great mover and, for me, he’s gotten better every time he’s been to a racecourse,” said Moore, who has the Derby assignment and was aboard for three of the horse’s four victories.
O’Brien is accustomed to working through issues, but Mendelssohn has been virtually trouble free. “We’ve been very happy with him all the time since last year,” he said.
Unlike many European predecessors, Mendelssohn’s pedigree suggests he fits the Derby perfectly. His sire, Scat Daddy, was a multiple Grade 1 winner on dirt. Beholder, his half sister, staged a brilliant display of stamina as the first female to win the mile-and-a-quarter Pacific Classic with an 8 1/4-length romp in 2015. She was retired the following year with more than $6 million in earnings.
Clarkland Farm also bred and raised Beholder. Fred Mitchell thought of her when he watched the efficiency of Mendelssohn, who has run farther than any Derby starter, in the U.A.E. Derby. “Their stride and everything is very similar, the way they were getting over the ground,” he said.
Mendelssohn is described by O’Brien as a “strong traveler.” He handled his first venture to the United States with aplomb, prevailing by one length in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf in November at Del Mar for Moore. His journey from Ireland to Dubai brought a U.A.E. Derby performance so spectacular as to be mind boggling.
“If he runs anywhere near what he did in the UAE Derby, then we are dealing with a super horse,” said Steve Haskin, senior correspondent for BloodHorse.
Jerry Brown, founder of Thoro-Graph, which issues speed figures that are used by serious handicappers and horsemen to help gauge a horse’s talent, awarded a minus four-and-a-half to the runaway winner of the U.A.E. Derby, a prep notorious for yielding Kentucky Derby busts. In Brown’s system, the better the performance, the lower the number. American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown champion, received a minus 1 in prepping in the Arkansas Derby before a minus 3 in the Kentucky Derby.
Brown said in assessing Mendelssohn: “If he runs back to that race, he’s going to win. But horses who run that fast before the Derby often what we call bounce, which means react to the big race. It takes something out of them, and they don’t run as well next time.”
Whatever the day brings, Nancy, 79, and Fred, 78, will finally leave a farm that has been in her family since 1774 to make the 90-minute drive to attend their first Derby.
“To have a horse come up like Mendelssohn has,” Fred said, “we almost have got to go watch him run.”