June 24, 2024

Mystik Dan lands 150th Kentucky Derby in three-way photo

Mystik Dan wins the 150th Kentucky Derby (Photo by Rickelle Nelson/Horsephotos.com)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Racing fans hoping for an epic 150th edition of the Kentucky Derby (G1) on Saturday at Churchill Downs got their wish.

In the closest finish for more than a quarter century, Mystik Dan hit the wire a desperate nose in front of Sierra Leone, who himself had the same margin on Japanese raider Forever Young.

Trainer Kenny McPeek and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. capped the weekend of their professional careers, capturing their first Derby 24 hours after teaming up to win their first Kentucky Oaks (G1), with Thorpedo Anna.

“It still hasn’t sunk in. It’s unbelievable,” Hernandez said. “We came into the weekend thinking we had good chances, really big chances to win both Friday and Saturday, and then to just have the horses pull it off for us.”

“For three weeks, I felt like we were going to win both races,” McPeek said. “I can’t tell you why. Both horses have been so easy to deal with.”

McPeek and Hernandez are only the third trainer/jockey combo to capture the Oaks and Derby in the same year. The first occurrence was in 1933, when Herbert J. Thompson and Don Meade won with Barn Swallow and Brokers Tip, both owned by Col. E. R. Bradley.

In 1952, Ben Jones and Eddie Arcaro pulled off the double with Real Delight and Hill Gail, both owned by Calumet Farm.

Mystik Dan doesn’t share common ownership with Thorpedo Anna, but had other similarities beyond their trainer and jockey. Both debuted at Keeneland last October, won at Churchill Downs in November, and prepped for their respective targets at Oaklawn Park.

They also wore the same bridle this weekend, McPeek said.

Mystik Dan and second choice Sierra Leone, who broke from posts 3 and 2, respectively, broke cleanly enough and avoided a collision involving several horses breaking to their immediate right. Farther out in post 16, 3-1 favorite Fierceness broke a bit tardily but recovered well enough to be involved in a four-way scrum for the lead around the first turn.

Fierceness raced in close attendance to Track Phantom and Just Steel from a three wide position down the backside, but the pace was fast: 22.97, :46.63, and 1:11.31. Meanwhile, Mystik Dan enjoyed an ideal trip hugging the inside path and advanced to fourth approaching the far turn.

With Track Phantom, Just Steel, and Fierceness beginning to weaken approaching the quarter pole, Mystik Dan cut the corner and entered the stretch the new leader. Meanwhile, Sierra Leone and Forever Young, who had launched their bids around the far turn, began furiously rallying.

Sierra Leone and Forever Young’s own efforts, however, were blunted by an exchange of bumps and brushes that lasted all the way to finish. Mystik Dan, who had raced far closer to the pace than the other two, began to feel the effects of that inside the final furlong, but the wire came in the nick of time.

“We thought we had the right horse to give him that trip. So we found our spot under the wire the first time quickly,” Hernandez said. “And then from there, he was just so nice and comfortable the entire way.

“I was really proud of him that he was able to just cruise along nicely. When I called on him to get the spot that I needed to right before we straightened to get a little separation on the deep, deep closers, he did it. He jumped off quickly and we were able to get that separation, and that made the difference as them not getting to him at the wire.”

Sent off at 18-1, Mystik Dan paid $39.22 after covering the 1 1/4 miles over a fast track in 2:03.34. Mystik Dan races for the partnership of Lance Gasaway, 4 G Racing, Daniel Hamby III, and Valley View Farm. The colt was bred in Kentucky by Gasaway, Hamby, and 4 G.

Catching Freedom finished fourth, 1 3/4 lengths behind Forever Young. T O Password, the other entrant from Japan, came in fifth. The order of finish was rounded out by Resilience, Stronghold, Honor Marie, Endlessly, Dornoch, Track Phantom, West Saratoga, Domestic Product, Epic Ride, Fierceness, Society Man, Just Steel, Grand Mo the First, Catalytic, and Just a Touch.

The Derby was Mystik Dan’s third win in seven starts. Second in his debut at Keeneland over 6 1/2 furlongs, he bolted up to break his maiden at Churchill on Nov. 12, scoring by 7 3/4 lengths going 5 1/2 furlongs. A quick, two-week turnaround into allowance company, though, at the end of the Churchill fall meet did not suit, as Mystik Dan finished fifth of 11 going a mile.

Mystik Dan made his stakes debut in the Jan. 1 Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn, where he finished fifth to Catching Freedom. But over a muddy Oaklawn strip the following month, Mystik Dan turned in one of the fastest preps by a Derby entrant when taking the Southwest (G3) by eight lengths.

However, doubts about Mystik Dan’s relative ability over fast tracks grew when he didn’t follow up that performance with a similarly fast try in the Arkansas Derby (G1), where he was beaten more than six lengths into third by Muth, who was ineligible to compete in the Kentucky Derby due to trainer Bob Baffert’s current suspension from competing at Churchill Downs.

Mystik Dan is a son of Goldencents and is the first foal produced by Ma’am, a daughter of Colonel John. This female family has also produced Grade 1 winner Siphonic and Laragh.

“I think what I’m most proud of is we didn’t do it with Calumet Farm horses. We’ve done it with what I call working class horses,” McPeek said. “This colt is a product of a very simple setup. A lovely little filly named Ma’am that we raced. She was a hard trier and she was classy. Fortunately, they decided to keep her as a mare.

“We talked about who to breed her to and look what she produced. Goldencents is not a big number stallion. Just putting all that together, I’m really proud of. Alan Shell foaled Dan at my farm in Lexington. This isn’t a huge zillion dollar operation. We didn’t throw money at this. We thoughtfully went through it all, and it’s amazing.”

Amazing, indeed, and an instant classic in the annals of American racing’s most celebrated classic.

Jennifer Kelly contributed to this report