Kentucky Derby Future Wager International Scouting Report: Mendelssohn vs Gronkowski

April 6th, 2018


With two European-based options in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager this weekend, it’s time for an international scouting report on the relative merits of Aidan O’Brien’s Mendelssohn and Jeremy Noseda’s Gronkowski.

We’ll compare and contrast their claims in four categories:

1. Pedigree. Although one can be too doctrinaire about reading the pedigree tea leaves for Derby hopefuls, Mendelssohn had a strong claim to act on dirt even before his UAE Derby (G2) romp. His late sire, Scat Daddy, was top-class on the dirt himself as a Florida Derby (G1) and Champagne (G1) winner, even if he’s become more associated with siring turf standouts. And as a son of Broodmare of the Year Leslie’s Lady, Mendelssohn is a half-brother to future Hall of Famer Beholder as well as hot young sire Into Mischief.

In contrast, Gronkowski is by Australian superstar Lonhro, a sire who sports some dirt influences that are likely lost amid a sea of superb bloodlines for turf. Gronkowski’s dam, the unraced Four Sugars, supplies the potential dirt aptitude as a Lookin at Lucky half-sister to 2007 Stephen Foster (G1) winner Flashy Bull. Still, Gronkowski would do well if he’s equally effective on dirt as on synthetic, and there’s not a compelling reason to think he’d move up on the traditional American surface.

Advantage Mendelssohn for all of those reasons, not because he was a $3 million Keeneland September sale topper compared to Gronkowski’s $404,145 purchase price as a Tattersalls Craven two-year-old. My colleague Ed DeRosa would be quick to offer the following counterpoint: no male line descendant of Storm Cat has ever won the Derby, and Mendelssohn would be a first. But to me, that stat is less likely to remain as relevant the more years pass by, and Storm Cat’s influence (if you deem it a negative in this context) becomes ever more attenuated. In any event, the right horse can erase such a stat (that goes for Justify too).

2. Running style. Mendelssohn, with the exception of his clueless career debut, has shown good tactical speed, and the blinkers have brought him to a completely different level (also known as growing another leg, as O’Brien put it). A May 17 baby, Mendelssohn was entitled to take a while to strengthen both physically and mentally. He’s been tractable in the hands of jockey Ryan Moore, responding when asked for pace but otherwise traveling sweetly.

Gronkowski likewise needed the headgear to bring out the best in him. He too displayed good early pace, albeit in more modest company on the British all-weather, in his first two victories. But the picture has been mixed in his last pair, perhaps in an attempt to teach him to settle better. If so, Gronkowski was having none of it at Kempton, where he pulled under restraint and jockey Jamie Spencer had to let him go in a premature move. He was good enough to get away with it at that level, but it wasn’t the most attractive example of racing manners. In his latest at Newcastle, Gronkowski took more kindly to being reserved at the rear and launched a sustained rally. But he’s been more emphatic when allowed to stride on early and build up momentum rather than employing hold-up tactics.

Advantage Mendelssohn for having the weapons to work out the right kind of Derby trip. Gronkowski may have difficulty making up much ground if dropping back again, and it’s questionable if his all-weather pace would put him in good enough position in a far more strongly run race on dirt.

3. Form. This category provides the most glaring contrast between an internationally proven Grade 1 winner versus a horse whose biggest class test so far came in a listed stakes on the all-weather. No need to belabor the point when Mendelssohn captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), on what may not even be his optimal surface; finished a clear second in Newmarket’s historic Dewhurst (G1); and just made a mockery of the UAE Derby in track-record time at Meydan. Even taking into account the speed bias, his performance stamped him as a serious Derby candidate. To be fair to Gronkowski, he hasn’t had an opportunity to prove himself yet, and he’s come through the ranks with a four-race winning spree that cries out for a class hike. Yet when you’re driving to beat an exposed 33-1 shot down a straight mile at Newcastle, and your better rivals don’t do themselves justice, it’s fair to say you have something to find on form.

Advantage Mendelssohn.

4. Road to the Derby. While both are trying to end the shut-out of European-based horses in the Run for the Roses, at least Mendelssohn has stood up to be tested. O’Brien used the March 9 Patton S. at Dundalk as a tightener for Dubai, so it was incidental that Mendelssohn happened to earn Derby points on the European scoreboard. The long-range plan was to give him a proper challenge on the dirt in the UAE Derby, to gauge his proficiency on the surface as well as his stamina over an about 1 3/16-mile trip. After his fireworks, it’s easy to forget that O’Brien did express some caution pre-race that we’d learn if he’d stay the distance.

Gronkowski, on the other hand, has yet to race beyond a mile, so he’s running the gauntlet of distance, class, surface, and international travel tests. More significantly, arriving at Churchill via the European Road wasn’t Noseda’s original idea. He intended for Gronkowski to compete in an American points race to get a better read of how he stacks up. Indeed, his quotations in a March 9 Racing Post article are admirably direct, and he pulled no punches:

The easy way to go would be to go to the next race in England but in trying to win the real race you have got to do a real preparation and get him on American dirt and get him to race on American dirt to know where you are.

As much as there is an easy route there, if you really want to achieve the big prize the prep race on dirt in America is key.

...There's no point thinking you are legitimate, you have to find out beforehand and a proper Derby trial in America will tell us. If we are, the points won't be a problem.

All that changed when connections learned that Derby points were not transferable across the European and main leaderboards, and Gronkowski would leave his Kempton points on the table if he left the European Road. So they did go for the “easy way” after all, making the jaunt over to the Burradon S. at Newcastle, the final scoring race at home, to clinch the European Road title and the accompanying invitation to the Kentucky Derby. If the plan was just to make it to Louisville, it’s mission accomplished. But note that all of Noseda’s prior questions remain unanswered because he ran at Newcastle instead of tackling one of Saturday’s more meaningful preps.

Noseda knows exactly what he’s talking about since he’s been on this path before. Although his most celebrated invader, 2004 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) upsetter Wilko, was later transferred stateside for the Derby trail, Noseda sent Awesome Act over in 2010. That blueblood took the Gotham (G3) in style, only to finish a distant third in the Wood Memorial (G1), and lost his form badly when beating one home in the Derby.

Advantage Mendelssohn.

Conclusion: In the head-to-head match-up, there’s obviously plenty more to like about Mendelssohn. But even he has the additional task of trying to duplicate his Dubai heroics, on a different type of track, while clashing with several serious Americans in an arguably above-average crop. Moreover, the Kentucky Derby Future Wager is about value compared to what you’re likely to get on raceday, and that ship has sailed on Mendelssohn. If you were clever enough to back him in Pool 1, where Mendelssohn closed at 31-1, Pool 2 (44-1), or Pool 3 (28-1), congratulations! If not, he’s trading at a paltry 3-1 as of Friday afternoon. Gronkowski is a far bigger 34-1, but for a horse who would need a career best to hit the board, never mind win, that’s not value either.