Fancy’ work for Mor Spirit at Churchill

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Gary Stevens took a good hold of Mor Spirit into the backstretch, started to leave Jim Barnes and the pony behind as his workmate opened up a few lengths during his mount’s final serious breeze before Saturday’s Kentucky Derby Monday morning at Churchill Downs.

Stevens, sensing a slight aggressiveness from Mor Spirit, immediately let the rider on the workmate know things were going to get a bit more serious a little earlier than planned.

“The work was designed … Bob wanted a half mile of :49, just get him around there happy,” Stevens said of Bob Baffert, who was watching the workout from the frontside and in touch via a walkie talkie clipped the Hall of Fame jockey’s belt. “He warmed up pretty aggressive with me and Bob came over the radio and said … take him back 4 or 5 lengths and he was really aggressive going to the 4 1/2 and that’s where Bob told us to go from.

“I hollered up to David Lopez and said, ‘get going buddy,’ because he grabbed me and I was going to wind up head and head with him. David went on, I got control of my horse and entering the stretch he turned into Pac Man, jumped into it, giving me all I wanted, and he wanted to do a lot more than I let him. As we crossed the finish line Bob said let him gallop out and he actually galloped out to the three-quarter pole.”

Clockers timed Mor Spirit in :59.80 for the 5-furlong work in company with the 3-year-old maiden Jimbo Fallon. Mor Spirit’s splits were :12.40, :23.60, :35.40 and :46.80, with 6-furlong gallop-out split in 1:13.20.

Stevens, a three-time winner Kentucky Derby in his Hall of Fame career, met with a small group of reporters outside Baffert’s barn on the Churchill backside shortly after the work.

“This morning (Baffert) was looking for something to keep the cobwebs out, nothing fancy, and as it turned out it was something fancy when he told me what the time was,” Stevens said. “He told me he was looking for a :49 half and then an easy gallop out.”

Stevens will attempt to join very rarified air Saturday when he rides Mor Spirit in the Derby. Only three men – Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack and Bill Shoemaker – have ridden four or more Kentucky Derby winners. Acaro and Hartack are tied for the all-time lead with five apiece, with Shoemaker one back.

Stevens is tied with six other legends – Isaac Murphy, Earle Sande, Angel Cordero Jr., Kent Desormeaux, Calvin Borel and Victor Espinoza – with three apiece. He knows what it takes to make it to the infield winner’s circle and he knows it’s not vital to go into the 1 1/4-mile classic off a victory in that final prep.

Thunder Gulch and Silver Charm both won the off a loss in their final prep and Stevens mentioned hoping to emulate the 1995 winner during his short chat with the media Monday morning.

“I came here in 1995 to ride Thunder Gulch and he had just got destroyed as a heavy favorite in the Blue Grass and he turned into a man that day,” Stevens said. “The Kentucky Derby was the best race he’d run in his career up to that point. I’m hoping the same thing. Hoping the lightning will strike twice here at Churchill. Same kind of deal.”

Unlike Thunder Gulch, who was fourth spinning his wheels in the 1995 Blue Grass as Wild Syn sprang a monster upset at 30-1 in a six-horse field, Mor Spirit enters the Derby off a second behind Exaggerator on a very sloppy track in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Mor Spirit raced fourth early in the Santa Anita Derby before passing rivals in the stretch to finish second as Exaggerator rolled to a 6 1/4-length victory.

Mor Spirit’s second was his fourth runner-up effort in his career to go with three victories in seven starts. The son of Eskenderea finished second in last year’s Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill before a season-ending victory in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity. The only time Stevens didn’t ride Mor Spirit was the Kentucky Jockey Club, when Martin Garcia was aboard.

“I wasn’t impressed with his race,” Stevens said of the Santa Anita Derby. “A lot of people said, ‘hey, he grinded out a second-place,’ but Bob and I were both disappointed with the performance. He was thinking about scratching the horse all day long. He told me in the paddock, he said, ‘look we either win or go into protection mode, we have the horse for the Derby, we already have the points.’ I thought he’d overcome it and win anyway. We didn’t and here we are and we’ve got a nice strong, sound horse underneath us and it’s all good.”