That the son of Malibu Moon looked every bit like the novice he is while never once appearing to be in danger of losing, however, was the most noteworthy part of the Todd Pletcher trainee's performance.
In a barn bursting with top contenders for the first leg of the Triple Crown, it is the colt who didn't even start his career until January who has accumulated the most qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). Despite facing pressure from Quip on the front end and then drifting out several paths in the lane, Robert and Lawana Low's Magnum Moon proved much the best with a gate-to-wire, four-length victory in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1).
After picking up the 100 qualifying points bestowed to the winner of Saturday's 1 1/8-mile test, Magnum Moon now sits atop the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 150. Considering how green he was still acting in the stretch, you could argue that if the bay colt gets his mind right by May 5, he could the top dog in a Pletcher armada that includes Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) winner Audible, Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2) hero Vino Rosso, and Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) victor Noble Indy.
"I thought (his race) was very good," said Pletcher, whose charges occupy four of the top five positions on the points standings. "Very pleased with the outcome. (I was) a little concerned that he drifted out the last part, but it looked like he sort of halfway thought about jumping over the tire marks when he went by the eighth pole where the gate was and sort of skipped over those.
"I think he was maybe just drifting away from that. Aside from that, I thought he finished with good energy and was pulling away from some nice horses."
Unraced as a juvenile, Magnum Moon began his assault on the so-called 'Curse of Apollo'—no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without a start as a 2-year-old—when he broke his maiden at first asking at Gulfstream Park Jan. 13. Following an allowance optional-claiming win at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 15, Magnum Moon let it be known he was a legit contender in a 3-year-old class packed with talent when he captured the March 17 Rebel Stakes (G2) by 3 1/2 lengths over grade 1-placed Solomini.
Even with Solomini back in for the Arkansas Derby and graded stakes winner Quip shipping in for his first try in a top-level test, Magnum Moon was sent off as the clear 4-5 favorite in the nine-horse field Saturday. Jockey Luis Saez said it wasn't necessarily the plan to go to the lead, but his mount took him there when he broke sharply out of post 6 and outran Quip for the advantage going into the first turn.
"I thought there was going to be a little speed," Saez said. "We were in a good position. He broke really sharp. I'm not going to choke him. I am just going to stay there, and he was very comfortable into the turn. He was traveling pretty good. When I came to the stretch, I felt like he was looking at the gate marks, so when we got there, I touched him a little and he went on."
Quip stayed right off Magnum Moon's neck through fractions of :23.34 and :48.60, and he was about on even terms with the pacesetter as they rounded the far turn. Combatant and Solomini tried to join the fight with three- and four-wide moves, respectively, but Magnum Moon made all those challenges futile as he reached the stretch.
"He had me worried to death when I saw we were on the lead. But Luis (Saez) gave him a masterful ride," Robert Low said.
Added Pletcher, "He showed his versatility. He's won a number of different ways now, and I think he's proven that he's the kind of horse that doesn't need the race to unfold a certain way, that he's able to kind of make his own race."
Magnum Moon covered the distance in 1:49.86 over a track rated fast, with Quip holding on for place money. Solomini, who needed a top-three finish to secure enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field, got his head down over Combatant for third despite not switching leads in the stretch.
"He didn't break as sharply as we would have liked. He was third-best today," said Justin Zayat of Zayat Stables, which co-owns Solomini with Coolmore partners. "The winner is a really nice horse. We'll talk to (trainer) Bob (Baffert), but I thought it was a good race, and now it's on to Kentucky."
Bred by Ramona Bass out of the Unbridled's Song mare Dazzling Song, Magnum Moon bolstered his earnings to $1,177,800 while remaining unbeaten in four starts. He was purchased by the Lows for $380,000 from Claiborne Farm's consignment to the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale.
Video: Arkansas Derby (G1)