As jockey Gary Stevens was pulling up Mor Spirit after his 5-furlong move over the Churchill Downs track Monday morning, the voice of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert piped into his ear with a reassuring message.
“Bob hollered at me on the radio when we pulled up. He said, ‘We’ve got a shot now! We could hit the board,’” Stevens said grinning. “I didn’t know what the time was until you guys told me, but that puts a smile on my face because that was absolutely breezing.”
The long-striding Mor Spirit can be a quirky horse to work. To the relief of his connections, the ridgling son of Eskendereya had it together in his last major move before Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, covering 5 furlongs in :59.80 while working in company with stablemate Jimbo Fallon.
Getting Mor Spirit interested in his morning activities has been an occasional problem, even causing Baffert and Stevens to abort a planned 6-furlong move in late February when he was unresponsive after they forgot to remove his earplugs. There was no laziness in the Grade I winner Monday, however, as he broke off about 3 lengths behind his workmate and clocked splits of :12.40, :23.60, :35.40, :46.80 to finish on even terms with a gallop-out in 1:13.20.
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“This morning, (Baffert) was just looking for something to keep the cobwebs out,” Stevens said. “He didn’t want anything fancy and it turns out it was kind of fancy.
“He got really aggressive going to the 4½ pole and I hollered to David Lopez (on Jimbo Fallon), ‘Get going buddy,’ because my horse grabbed me. David went on, I got control of my horse, and heading into the stretch he turned into Pac Man and was giving me all I wanted. He wanted to do more than I let him. I didn’t know we went :59 and change. I thought we went 1:01. When I’m two seconds off on a good horse that usually turns into a good thing.”
In seven career starts, the dark bay runner has never been worse than second. He broke through to win the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity last December and opened his 3-year-old campaign with a victory in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 6.
“He’s coming into the race the right way, and he tries hard. He runs every time,” Baffert said. “He’s been first or second, right when you think he’s not running, all the sudden he’ll put that head down. To me he looks like he’d be hard to ride, but Gary said he doesn’t get as tired, the way he puts his head down.
“He moves over the surface here much better than Santa Anita, and that’s half the battle, that they like it. I feel that he’s in a position where he’s going to run his race and we’ll see if he’s good enough.”
Stevens specifically pointed to Mor Spirit’s runner-up finish in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last November — a race in which the colt pressed the early pace — as a real indicator of how handy he can be.
“Everyone thinks of him as a plodder and myself and (jockey) Martin Garcia have been the only ones on his back,” Stevens said. “I know what I’m sitting on, I know what’s there. Bob has been real conservative with him through all his races. I was surprised when he brought him back here for the Kentucky Jockey Club. He came back three weeks after breaking his maiden and then flew in, raced at night in the mud for the first time and still ran second. I thought, ‘This is a Derby horse if he can handle all that.’ And Bob said the same thing.”
Mor Spirit was most recently second to Exaggerator in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 9. He has three wins from seven career starts with earnings of $658,400.
Kentucky Oaks contender and graded stakes winner Cathryn Sophia got her first feel of the Churchill Downs surface Monday when she and exercise rider Jerry Ortega jogged once around the track.
Trainer John Servis was on hand to watch Cathryn Sophia, who arrived in Louisville early Sunday after a van ride from Keeneland. Servis, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2004 with Smarty Jones, reflected on what it would mean to him to earn his first Oaks victory.
“It would be great, are you kidding me, it would be a nice one for the résumé — that’s for sure,” the trainer said with a smile.