Mendelssohn tuning up to end Europe's Kentucky Derby drought

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Story highlights

  • Mendelssohn joint 4-1 favorite alongside Justify to win the Kentucky Derby
  • Three-year-old colt was bred in Kentucky, trained in Ireland
  • Mendelssohn won UAE Derby last month by 18 lengths

(CNN)He's tall, dark and handsome and named after a German composer.

But Mendelssohn is a three-year-old bay colt who may be about to end a 143-year wait for a European-trained winner in the Kentucky Derby, America's most important horse race.
Just like Felix Mendelssohn, who had been a child prodigy in painting, music and poetry in the 19th century before he became one of the world's most famous composers, Mendelssohn the horse has enjoyed an equally rapid rise to fame.

    Top bloodline

    Sired by the late Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy and out of the 2016 Kentucky broodmare of the year, Leslie's Lady, Mendelssohn was born at Clarkland Farm in Kentucky in 2015.
    Here's a picture of Mendelssohn and his mother soon after his birth:
    A year later, the yearling colt made headlines at the Keeneland September sales when he was snapped up for a cool $3 million by Irish horse racing tycoon John Magnier's Coolmore Stud.
    There was something about Mendelssohn, the most expensive yearling of 2016, that immediately stood out.
    "The yet-unnamed colt had a drop-dead gorgeous conformation, plus a first-class mind, as evidenced by how he handled the Keeneland sale experience," the Kentucky Derby reported in a story on its website.
    "Subjected to inspections for about five days, he showed like a pro, walking on cue, not having to be pulled or pushed into position, all the while with his head and ears erect."

    Loved the dirt

    Trained by Aidan O'Brien in Ireland, Mendelssohn soon validated his hefty price tag when he triumphed in last year's $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf over one mile in Del Mar, California.
    Testing his endurance over a distance of nearly 1.2 miles and for the first time on dirt, jockey Ryan Moore guided Mendelssohn to a huge victory at last month's $2 million UAE Derby at the Dubai World Cup, winning by 18 lengths.
    "I'm over the moon and it was the way he did it, going forward from the start and doing it the hard way," O'Brien told the Irish Times after the race.
    "He galloped out and saw every yard of the distance. We knew it was very important how he handled the dirt, but he loved the surface."
    Nine UAE Derby winners have started in the Kentucky Derby since 2000, but none have finished higher than sixth in the "Run for the Roses" at Churchill Downs.
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    Joint favorite

    After his commanding win in the UAE Derby, Mendelssohn is now the joint 4-1 favorite alongside Justify with UK bookmaker William Hill to win the Kentucky Derby. That means a successful $1 wager would yield $4 plus the original stake. Audible is the third favorite at 7-1, followed by Magnum Moon at 9-1.
    "He's a high-quality horse who has got better with every start," Mendelssohn's jockey Moore told the Irish Times after their Dubai win.
    "It's the first time he's been in front today and he's still a horse that's learning, so he was still a bit green in places," said Moore, who is skipping the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, England to ride in Kentucky. "It was his first run on dirt, so that was huge for him, and it was his first time at this trip, so that was another question mark."

    European drought

    No horse shipped from Europe has ever won what's often called "The most exciting two minutes in sports."
    Trainer Aidan O'Brien (on the right)
    The 144th edition of the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby, which is contested by thoroughbreds no older than three, will be held on May 5 at Churchill Downs race track in Louisville, Kentucky.
    Europe's best performance dates back to 1986, when Bold Arrangement finished second to Ferdinand, despite a 36-hour quarantine period in New York followed by an 18-hour van journey to Kentucky.

    'Far tougher'

    Mendelssohn, a half-brother to three-time Breeders' Cup winner and Eclipse champion Beholder, is the first runner from Europe to start the event as the favorite since Arazi, who finished eighth in 1992.
    Earlier this month, fellow European-trained horse Gronkowski was withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby with illness.
    Should Mendelssohn win, it will also be the first Kentucky Derby victory for his trainer O'Brien, who has had five previous runners, as well as for jockey Moore.
    "Obviously the next time it's going to be a far tougher question, there's no doubt about that, but we're very happy with what he's done and I still feel he will get better," Moore said last month in Dubai.