Mike Stidham feels the pressure. He reads the polls. He understands having one of the best horses in the world in his barn means people notice. There are expectations, comparisons and plenty of attention.
“Certainly with winning a race like that comes pressure, but it’s good pressure,” said Stidham, with a nod toward Mystic Guide, winner of the $12 million Dubai World Cup in March and undefeated in two starts this year.
The 4-year-old ships from Stidham’s base at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland to Belmont Park for Saturday’s Grade 2 Suburban Stakes, the first start for Godolphin’s colt in more than three months. The layoff represented a return to routine for the son of Ghostzapper and five-time Grade 1 winner Music Note after a hectic trip to Dubai.
“The whole routine over there – from the quarantine barn it was a two-mile walk to the track – it was a lot,” Stidham said. Paddock schooling at Meydan took place only on Tuesday leading up to the race on Saturday, where the abnormalities didn’t let up.
“It was like your worst nightmare unfolding before your eyes,” said Hilary Pridham, Stidham’s longtime assistant trainer and partner, of the race-day proceedings in Dubai. A long trip to the track, multiple holding barns and pre-race chaos involving a loose horse, two late scratches and a delay at the starting gate threw Mystic Guide all he could handle.
And handle it he did. Godolphin’s star defeated top international competition by 3 ¾ lengths with Luis Saez aboard in the 25th installment of the race.
“He really thrived pretty well over there, considering all that went on,” Stidham said.
The Kentucky-bred had to evolve to become what he is today. Unraced at 2 and loser of three of his first four starts, Mystic Guide rounded into form last year while catching up to his peers. He broke his maiden at Fair Grounds in March, got delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, finished second in a Belmont allowance in June and was third as the favorite in Saratoga’s Peter Pan in mid-July. It’s been nothing but progress since then, with a win in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga, a second to Happy Saver in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup in October and the two wins this year – starting with the Grade 3 Razorback at Oaklawn Park in February before heading to Dubai.
Following the World Cup victory, Mystic Guide spent time at Arlington Park, Keeneland, and finally Fair Hill, where he found his training rhythm and worked seven times over the dirt track since May 8.
“The first week we just kind of walked him and let him settle in,” Stidham said of the post-Dubai process. “He had definitely lost a few pounds on the trip. We got him back to Keeneland and after about a week or 10 days of walking, we started jogging and doing some light stuff. We waited until we got here the beginning of May to actually start a breeze pattern.”
That rhythm, part of what makes Mystic Guide tick, was on full display Tuesday morning at the barn.
Following an early-morning gallop, Mystic Guide cooled out around the shedrow before emerging with Stidham foreman Thomas “TC” Stuckey, headed for a sandy round pen outside the barn. The chestnut colt stretched his legs, laid down and proceeded to roll, scratching his back and kicking up dirt with each side-to-side rotation.
“This is one of his favorite things,” Stidham said. “This is his routine every day. He gallops, we take the tack off, and we come out here.”
Stuckey stayed on the lead shank, watching over the colt’s post-training jubilation like a parent watching a child at a swimming pool – have fun, but keep it under control.
“When we first got here, we would turn him loose in there and he would really kick up his heels pretty good,” Stidham said. “A little more than I was comfortable with.”
Minutes later, Mystic Guide hopped up from the sand, looked at Stuckey as if to say, “That’ll do,” and they walked out the gate and toward a wash stall.
The even-money favorite on the morning line, Mystic Guide will be part of a six-horse field in the Suburban with Saez aboard. The group includes a familiar foe in undefeated Happy Saver, the 4-year-old colt from Todd Pletcher’s barn who handed Mystic Guide his last defeat in the Gold Cup last October. Wertheimer et Frere’s homebred son of Super Saver, 6-5 on the morning line, won an allowance prep May 28.
Set for 5:44 p.m., the Suburban is the last of 10 races on Saturday’s card, carrying a $400,000 purse. The day also includes the $100,000 Perfect Sting Stakes.
“We kind of picked the Suburban because he’s definitely a true mile-and-a-quarter horse and there aren’t a lot of those options,” Stidham said.
The trainer also had to balance other concerns as Godolphin finds itself in a precarious – if enviable – position heading into the second half of the racing year with three of the best horses in the country in Mystic Guide, Maxfield and Essential Quality. While certainly a suffering-from-success problem, the trio might make picking future spots somewhat difficult.
Four-year-old Maxfield, trained by Brendan Walsh, dominated the Grade 2 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs last week – his third graded-stakes win in four starts this year. Mystic Guide gets his chance in the Suburban. Belmont Stakes winner Essential Quality, part of the Brad Cox barn, can stay in the 3-year-old division for now.
And if you’re keeping score, the latest NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll ranks Mystic Guide No. 1, Maxfield third and Essential Quality sixth.
“Unfortunately I do look at it,” he said. “That’s the bad part.”
In a good way.