Big test for Uncle Mo?

| March 10, 2011

Only eight weeks remain before the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, but Derby fans are set to get their first 2011 glimpse of 2-year-old champion and early Derby favorite Uncle Mo this weekend.

Owner Mike Repole’s unbeaten and unchallenged son of Indian Charlie was last seen dismissing foes in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs in early November.

The goal for Uncle Mo is to return in the $100,000 Timely Writer Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

The one-mile race was pretty much written for trainer Todd Pletcher’s champion and it would be a huge surprise if his season debut turns out to be another stroll for the colt who has won his previous three starts by a combined margin of more than 23 lengths.

Gulfstream preferred

If Gulfstream Park cannot pull together enough horses to run the Timely Writer, Pletcher’s back-up plan is a trip to Tampa Bay Downs for the Tampa Bay Derby. But Pletcher and Repole clearly want to keep their star at Gulfstream Park for the first outing in what is planned to be a two-race campaign for the Run for the Roses.

As a longtime observer of the Kentucky Derby, I am not a fan of the two-prep campaign for the grueling 1 1/4-mile classic, although that has certainly become fashionable among top Derby stables. For my money, I’m concerned that those campaigns do not season these young horses enough for the rigors of a Triple Crown campaign.

Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby romp in 2006, in which the tender-footed colt’s spotty training and racing schedule helped shape the current trend. Trainer Rick Dutrow’s colt was simply much the best of a less-than-imposing group of 3-year-olds, and that might not be the case this year.

It’s too early to get much of a grasp on the overall quality of this year’s group, although it might not matter. There’s a chance that Uncle Mo might be so special he would tower over even a very good 3-year-old crop.

That, however, has yet to be proven. Saturday’s race, wherever it is (entries for both races were taken after this column went to press), will be the first step in that process for Uncle Mo.

Uncle Mo solid

But a solid effort over what figures to be modest competition in the Timely Writer or a tougher group at Tampa Bay Downs would enhance the reputation of Uncle Mo, who now stands as one of the heaviest Derby favorites in March in recent years.

Pool 2 of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby Future Wager is set for its three-day run this weekend, and Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia has installed Uncle Mo as the 7-2 second choice over the mutuel field, a betting interest that includes every 3-year-old Thoroughbred in the world other than 23 individual horses in the pool.

The “all others” wager is usually the favorite in the second of three annual Derby Future pools, but it would be no surprise to see Uncle Mo in the favorite’s role when betting concludes on Sunday at 6 p.m. (Eastern).

If Uncle Mo should lose, it will not be the end of his Derby hopes. The race will be his first in four months and, while he has worked well in preparation for the race, there is no way he is primed for a top effort. The goal is to peak on May 7, not March 12.

Which brings us to a couple of performances from last week: a surprising loss by the previously unbeaten Dialed In and a solid, but uninspiring, run by Stay Thirsty, the Repole-owned stablemate to Uncle Mo, in a win in the Gotham Stakes.

There has been much hand-wringing among Derby fans and media since the Nick Zito-trained Dialed In, an impressive last-to-first winner of the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, fell a half-length short of beating his older stablemate Equestrio in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race on Sunday.

In defeat, Dialed In either “exposed himself as a fraud,” as one of my friends put it, or he learned some valuable lessons that will help in him a planned run in the $1 million Florida Derby followed by a trip to Churchill Downs for the big race.

Count me in the latter category. Dialed In, a confirmed stretch runner, was confined between horses behind a very slow pace, but fired when jockey Julien Leparoux found a seam to run through and finished well. It was a very good learning experience, although a disappointing one at odds of 1-to-5. But it was not wise to wager on a horse like Dialed In who was clearly in a race to learn, which he did. A win was expected and the loss was a minor disappointment. But, again, the ultimate target is Saturday, May 7.

The same goes for Stay Thirsty, a nice colt who could be very good. Saturday’s Gotham win was solid.,  It wasn’t impressive enough to put him on the short list of major Derby hopes, but enough to think that he could be a player if he has a good 60 days.

Right now, the Derby picture looks like this: we’re all waiting on Uncle Mo, and we finally get to see this year’s “Big Horse” on Saturday.

While last week’s racing did not offer any Derby revelations, it did identify a major contender for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic when the two-day event returns to Churchill Downs this fall. That horse is Misremembered, best know to Churchill Downs fans for his close runner-up finish to Blame in the 2009 Clark Handicap – a race that proved even more noteworthy when the latter downed previously unbeaten Zenyatta in last fall’s Classic.

The Bob Baffert-trained Misremembered returned from a year on the sidelines with a dazzling victory in the Santana Mile on Sunday at Santa Anita. The effort was more impressive that anything seen the previous day in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, which the now 5-year-old had won a year earlier.

I’ve always believed that Misremembered would have been a major player in last year’s Breeders’ Cup had he been healthy. If all goes well, he could be the star of stars when the big show returns to Churchill Downs in November.

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