When a horse willingly races inside and through traffic, take note

May 7th, 2024

Some horses are uncomfortable racing inside and behind rivals and fail to run their best when asked to do so. Others don’t mind at all, opening the door for perfect ground-saving trips.

After all, the inside is the shortest path around a racetrack, and the ability to wait inside and behind rivals before exploding through traffic at an opportune time can make the difference between victory and defeat. Mystik Dan demonstrated that vividly in the 150th running of the historic Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs.

Coming into the Kentucky Derby, Mystik Dan had shown on multiple occasions that he could handle racing inside of horses. In a Nov. 25, 2023 $100,000 allowance optional claimer racing one mile at Churchill Downs, Mystik Dan raced between rivals early, advanced smoothly along the rail around the turn, and squeezed through an opening to seize the lead in the homestretch. While he ultimately tired to finish fifth, that wasn’t shocking given that he was making his route debut just 13 days after an impressive maiden victory.

Mystik Dan reiterated his rail-racing prowess in the Feb. 3, 2024 Southwest (G3) traveling 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn Park. The muddy track played in favor of rail runners that day, and Mystik Dan capitalized in spectacular fashion. After saving ground racing inside and behind runners, Mystik Dan slipped past the leaders on the inside and roared away to dominate by eight lengths.

When Mystik Dan drew post 3 in the May 4, 2024 Kentucky Derby, it wasn’t hard to envision him working out a ground-saving trip under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., a skilled rail rider who had guided Mystik Dan in both the Southwest and the Nov. 25 allowance. And that’s exactly what happened. Mystik Dan rated inside and behind runners in the Kentucky Derby, waited patiently for an opening around the far turn, surged through the narrowest of openings when an opportunity arose, and held off two deep closers to prevail by a nose.

Two points are worth emphasizing. If Mystik Dan hadn’t been comfortable racing inside and behind rivals, it’s unlikely he would have launched a winning rally once clear. And if he were hesitant about advancing through narrow openings, he would have had to wait and circle rivals, likely costing him a top-four finish.

Mystik Dan won the 150th Kentucky Derby not only because he had the requisite talent, but because he had the mental strength and professionalism to work out a perfect trip under circumstances that would stymie many horses. When you’re watching races and see a horse who doesn’t hesitate when racing inside, behind, and between rivals, take note, because not every horse is so adaptable, and the ones who are can work out awesome trips where their rivals cannot.