After an educational three-quarters of a mile, Gary Stevens signaled it was time to move on to the next lesson, which would involve the assiduous application of talent. He guided the big colt to the outside, loosened his hold on the reins and pushed the accelerator. Mor Spirit got the message. He leveled off, lugged in for just a moment and then, after feeling a pop of Stevens' left-handed whip, he seemed to grasp the meaning of all this, seemed to apprehend the objective and refocused for a surge to the wire.
With about a sixteenth of a mile remaining, Mor Spirit hit the front. And at that point, his trainer, Bob Baffert, thought to himself, as he later explained, "And so the party continues."
The party in this case, of course, is the Triple Crown, the sport's five-week celebration that inspires dreamy roisterers to buy champagne flutes, sparkling star balloons and curly streamers four, five and even six months in advance of the bash. Well, with his victory Saturday in the Los Alamitos Futurity, Mor Spirit put himself in the vanguard moving in the general direction of the festivities -- certainly in the top five, Baffert said. But for reasons comprised in equal parts of modesty and caution, the Hall of Fame trainer might have shortchanged the colt. From here, Mor Spirit looks like the top candidate.
After the Futurity, Stevens said he was "super excited" about Mor Spirit. But the excitement had more to do with potential than accomplishment. Mor Spirit isn't the quickest 2-year-old out there or the most accomplished, not even close. The Los Alamitos Futurity was his first stakes victory. But, as Stevens predicted, Mor Spirit looks like he could just "get better and better."
Here's the advantage of having a Hall of Fame jockey in the saddle who has won three Kentucky Derbies: Stevens understands what's necessary to snuggle up under the roseate blanket, and he knows how to get there. That's why so much of the Los Alamitos race was about education.
In the first sixteenth of a mile, Mor Spirit appeared eager to run with the leaders, but Stevens took the powerful colt in hand and persuaded him to settle. And he's quite a handful: Mor Spirit stands 16.1 hands tall and weighs 1,170 pounds, according to his trainer. Mor Spirit didn't quite ace this part of his lesson, but he scored high marks because by the time the field turned down the backstretch, he accepted his rider's cues and was receptive to the plan of conserving energy. He also tolerated the kickback from horses in front of him, not happily at first, but with gradual understanding. And then, when asked, he made his move, winning by more than a length over a game stablemate, Toews On Ice.
"That race was a big step forward for him," Baffert said, pointing out that Mor Spirit disliked the sloppy track at Churchill in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where he seemed to lose focus in the stretch. "He's grown up a lot. He's progressing. The quality is there." And so the long-striding colt, Baffert said, eases "the Pharoah depression" -- that is, Mor Spirit helps the stable get over the loss of the recently retired Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah.
A son of Eskendereya, who improved significantly at 3, Mor Spirit will probably race twice before the Kentucky Derby. And although he's eligible for the million-dollar, Fasig-Tipton bonus connected to the Florida Derby, those two starts, Baffert said, will probably be at either Santa Anita or Oaklawn Park.
But he's only foremost on the list of horses to watch as a new year and a fresh run-up to another Triple Crown approach. Keep an eye on all those Breeders' Cup Juvenile horses, especially Brody's Cause, Exaggerator, Conquest Big E, Greenpointcrusader and, of course, Nyquist. Although only one Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, Street Sense, has won the Kentucky Derby, the Juvenile is, in fact, the most telling of all the country's races for 2-year-olds. It's the race that's most predictive of future success. Its winners haven't quite showered themselves with Triple Crown glory -- understandably so, since Juvenile success requires speed and precocity -- but horses coming out of it have gone on in fact to win 23 Triple Crown races, horses such as Alysheba, Tabasco Cat, Afleet Alex, Point Given, Bet Twice and Union Rags. Even American Pharoah was entered in the Juvenile, only to be forced to the sidelines by an injury.
Another who's high on the list, of course, is Mohaymen, the beautiful colt who won the Nashua and the Remsen Stakes. In fact, at the Wynn Race Book in Las Vegas, in the Kentucky Derby Future pool, Mor Spirit and Mohaymen are the 12-1 co-favorites. Flexibility and Gift Box, who chased Mohaymen home in the Remsen, also deserve close scrutiny, along with Kentucky Jockey Club winner Airoforce, who races with all the professionalism of a veteran. But Gift Box especially looks like a colt that with more racing and distance could step forward significantly.
For under-the-radar types, Synchrony, who has won two of three for trainer Donnie Von Hemel and is training at Oaklawn Park, and Bird of Trey, a flashy winner at Parx, could put themselves on the road to Kentucky, along with recent winners Zulu, and Shagaf and Seymourdini. And so here are 10 young horses to watch moving forward into 2016:
1. Mor Spirit
3. Gift Box
7. Brody's Cause
8. Conquest Big E