Kentucky Derby Pedigree Profile: Highly Motivated

April 17th, 2021

One year ago, many handicappers would have examined the pedigree of Highly Motivated and concluded he had little chance of carrying his speed-oriented bloodlines over the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby (G1). But times change, opinions shift, and we can no longer be so quick to dismiss a horse of Highly Motivated’s lineage.

Highly Motivated is certainly worthy of respect from a performance standpoint. He arrives at Churchill Downs off a runner-up effort in the Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland, where he was beaten just a neck by the undefeated Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality. And while his basic pedigree (by Into Mischief out of Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward) initially screams SPEED!, there might be more stamina in the mix than first impressions suggest.

True, Into Mischief was primarily a sprinter/miler, with a victory in the 1 1/16-mile CashCall Futurity (G1) ranking as his greatest triumph. And granted, he’s sired an abundance of sprinters and milers during his phenomenally successful stud career, with two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Goldencents and champion female sprinters Covfefe and Gamine among his best.

But in 2020, Into Mischief’s reputation as a pure speed influence was turned upside down by the emergence of his most accomplished son, Authentic. From top to bottom, Authentic was bred for speed; his dam secured her lone victory dashing seven furlongs, and damsire Mr. Greeley was likewise a sprinter.

Yet Authentic could unequivocally carry his front-running speed 1 1/4 miles, as he demonstrated during the late summer and fall of 2020. Benefitting from the postponement of the Kentucky Derby due to COVID-19, Authentic posted a gate-to-wire upset under the Twin Spires, then proved it was no fluke by adding the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) to his resume.

So what does this mean for Highly Motivated? Well, it means we can’t count out Into Mischief as a sire of serious Kentucky Derby contenders—not even when he’s matched with mares who bring more speed than stamina to the table, as is the case with Highly Motivated. Normally, Derby handicappers would view Highly Motivated’s female family with skepticism; dam Strong Incentive secured her signature victory in the Jammed Lovely S. sprinting seven furlongs, the same distance over which damsire Warrior’s Reward won the Carter H. (G1). Plus, Strong Incentive’s first foal (Dew Springs) never won running farther than 6 1/2 furlongs.

That’s a lot of speed, but why worry? It’s essentially just Authentic’s pedigree all over again. And on the bright side, Warrior’s Reward is a stoutly bred son of Medaglia d’Oro out of a Seeking the Gold mare, so it’s not unrealistic to think Warrior’s Reward can pass stamina on to his descendants. He’s already proven capable of siring classy two-turn dirt runners, including Indiana Derby (G3) winner Axelrod and Prairie Meadows Cornhusker H. (G3) hero Night Ops.

Returning for a moment to Into Mischief, it’s worth remembering he’s a half-brother to four-time champion mare Beholder, a dominant winner of the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic (G1) against males. Another half-sibling, Mendelssohn, set a track record when dominating the 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby (G2) by 18 1/2 lengths.

We won’t try to claim Highly Motivated has a perfect pedigree for the Kentucky Derby. But speed is increasingly becoming the secret to success in the Run for the Roses, and following the success of Authentic, we can’t be quick in dismissing Highly Motivated’s chances. He might not win the Derby, but a top-five finish would come as no surprise.