Kentucky Derby Pedigree Profile: Mendelssohn

April 7th, 2018

Road to the Kentucky Derby UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn is a product of the old adage, “Breed the best to the best, and hope for the best.” Only in his case, those hopes are coming to fruition for the son of global sire sensation Scat Daddy and Broodmare of the Year Leslie’s Lady, already the dam of Beholder and Into Mischief.

Indeed, Mendelssohn is a rare individual in several ways – a $3 million yearling purchase who’s actually turned out to be worth a lot more, an incredible third home run for his prolific dam, a high-class performer on turf who was jaw-dropping on the switch to dirt.

Although bred to enjoy the dirt as a half-brother to Beholder, Mendelssohn exceeded the wildest expectations of fans and connections alike in the March 31 UAE Derby (G2). So imperious was the Aidan O’Brien trainee as he ran off by 18 1/2 lengths, in a Meydan track-record 1:55.18 for about 1 3/16 miles, that he actually improved on the dirt. That’s saying something for a horse who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) on what might not even be his best surface.

Pedigree suggested surface versatility, beginning with his late sire, Scat Daddy. Descending from the male line of Storm Cat, Scat Daddy is by transatlantic champion Johannesburg, unbeaten during his two-year-old campaign featuring Group 1s in three European countries as well as the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) on the Belmont Park dirt. Johannesburg was one of two that O’Brien brought in his first attempt on the Kentucky Derby in 2002, but he wound up eighth, partly failing to stay the trip but largely being a top juvenile who didn’t hit the heights at three.

Scat Daddy, in contrast, was a leading two-year-old who did carry on as a sophomore. Trained by Todd Pletcher, he captured the 2006 Champagne (G1) and Sanford (G2), placed second in the Hopeful (G1), and finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Scat Daddy later swept two of Gulfstream Park’s marquee three-year-old events, the Fountain of Youth (G2) and Florida Derby (G1), and arrived at Churchill Downs as a solid competitor at 7-1. Unfortunately, he sustained an injury in the Kentucky Derby that explained the worst result of his career (18th), and he ended up retiring to stud.

Although Scat Daddy did not get the opportunity to race on turf himself, he transmitted aptitude for the surface to progeny the world over. Lady Aurelia, Caravaggio, and No Nay Never have starred on the European turf, while his top North American grass runners include Celestine, Daddys Lil Darling, Lady of Shamrock, and Dacita, who was one of his phalanx of Chilean champions before making her mark in the United States. Scat Daddy has had exceptional results in Chile, where his standouts range from Horses of the Year Il Campione and Solaria on turf to dirt champions as well. He’s gotten some useful U.S. dirt runners too, most recently Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Flameaway, like Mendelssohn a poster boy for versatility across all surfaces.

Mendelssohn’s dam, Leslie’s Lady, is not only reinforcing the dirt side of the genetic equation but likely furnishing a helpful stamina boost also. If that sounds a bit strange for a daughter of Tricky Creek, she’s tapping into some deep reserves from her female line. The family runs through the Thomas Mellon Evans breeding program back to the old George Widener bloodlines, and she numbers among her relatives champion Pleasant Stage, turf marathoner Marsh Side, Class Play, Pillaster, Roanoke et al.

That hefty maternal line is probably the reason why Beholder, by sprinter Henny Hughes, stayed 1 1/4 miles to crush males in the 2015 Pacific Classic (G1). Sure to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame at first eligibility, Beholder won three Breeders’ Cup events (the Juvenile Fillies [G1] in 2012 and the Distaff [G1] in 2013 and 2016) among her 11 Grade 1 laurels. And her four Eclipse Awards, from five seasons of racing, attest to her longevity at the highest level. If Leslie’s Lady can produce a router like Beholder from a sire like Henny Hughes, she can produce a Derby threat to the cover of Scat Daddy.

Leslie’s Lady had a promising youngster on the Derby trail a decade ago in Into Mischief. Likewise from the Storm Cat sire line as a son of Harlan’s Holiday, Into Mischief garnered the 2007 CashCall Futurity (G1). But he missed the heart of the 2008 season due to injury, eliminating his chance at the classics. Into Mischief has since developed into a leading sire for B. Wayne Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm, which campaigned him and Beholder. His top performers include two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Goldencents, Practical Joke, and Canadian champions Conquest Enforcer and Miss Mischief. Although they had distance limitations of varying degrees, Into Mischief’s current Derby hopeful, Audible, handled the nine furlongs of the Florida Derby with panache.

With a pedigree like that, matched by a superb physique, it’s no wonder that Mendelssohn commanded a sales-topping $3 million at Keeneland September, making him the most expensive yearling sold at a North American auction in 2016. Coolmore’s M.V. Magnier was forced to bid that high to overcome Hughes, who was seeking to add the Scat Daddy-Leslie’s Lady colt to his collection of half-siblings Beholder and Into Mischief.

Now Mendelssohn advances to Churchill Downs, 10 years after Into Mischief was knocked off the trail, and 16 years after grandsire Johannesburg’s failed bid for O’Brien. He’s swimming against the tide of history, as no European-based horse, and no one coming via the Dubai route, has been able to win the Kentucky Derby. But Mendelssohn may just be unusual enough to pull it off.

Photo courtesy Coady Photography