It’s always more fun to watch the Kentucky Derby when you can root for a hometown hero. That was certainly the case when Sackatoga Stable–owned Tiz the Law, winner of the 2020 Belmont and Travers stakes, took to Churchill Downs’ famed oval in 2020. (That was the year the Triple Crown race schedule got all screwed up by COVID and the Derby ran in September.) And while this Saturday’s Derby won’t feature a horse with as much local celebrity as Tiz had, there is a contender with ties to Saratoga.
That contender is Wood Memorial winner Mo Donegal, a horse owned in part by Skidmore grads Ken Freirich and Ray Bryan by way of racing partnership Donegal Racing. “Donegal tends to find horses that close,” says Bryan, who lives in Saratoga but will be watching the Derby from his uncle’s 70th birthday party in Colorado Springs. “Mo Donegal has the fastest closing eighth of any of the horses in the Kentucky Derby, so we’re excited about that.”
Another reason to get excited, Saratogians? When you tune into the Derby (the day’s broadcasting starts at 2:30pm on NBC and the race itself beings at 6:57pm) you should be able to see a visual nod to Mo Donegal’s Spa City ties: The horse will be wearing a checkerboard-patterned blanket in Donegal Racing’s colors, which just so happen to be Skidmore’s colors as well. Freirich took the coincidence and ran with it, adding Skidmore’s logo to the blanket itself. “Ken has always been a huge supporter of Skidmore and this was a way for him to promote Skidmore,” Bryan says. “He’s going to be doing the walk over with the horse for the Derby, so he’s incredibly excited for it.”
Currently tied for fourth in Derby odds at 10-1, Mo Donegal is trained by Todd Pletcher and will be paired with jockey Irad Ortiz for the race. Ortiz also rode Mo Donegal in December’s Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct, in which he raced against Zandon, the Derby favorite at 3-1 odds. In the Remsen, Mo Donegal came out on top, beating Zandon at the wire. (Zandon is trained by Mechanicville native Chad Brown, which gives this year’s Derby yet another local connection).
As for Mo Donegal’s Derby chances, Bryan is hopeful—the horse does well on a wet track (there’s rain in the forecast), and hasn’t raced as much recently as his opponents have, so will be running on fresher legs. “The issue,” Bryan admits, “is the one post.” (The colt drew the number one post position, which is typically better for horses with more front-end speed, rather than closers like Mo Donegal.) “Historically speaking,” Bryan continues, “that’s a tough one to win from, but they did a new gate configuration in 2020 which should make it easier for a horse in the one hole to do OK and hopefully win.”
But whether he wins or not, Saratogians can expect to see more from Mo Donegal. “As long as he’s healthy,” Bryan says, “he’ll be in Saratoga.”