John Asher: Can Uncle Mo Win The Travers?

| August 24, 2011
REED PALMER | Churchill Downs Uncle Mo trained at Churchill Downs before being scratched from this year’s Kentucky Derby.

REED PALMER | Churchill DownsUncle Mo trained at Churchill Downs before being scratched from this year’s Kentucky Derby.

With the Triple Crown now a few weeks in our collective rear-view mirror and Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom on the sideline for the for the rest of the year, many of the top members of this year’s 3-year-old crop will gather at Saratoga on Saturday for the $1 million Travers Stakes.

The winners of two of the Triple Crown races – Preakness winner Shackle­ford and Belmont Stakes winner Ruler on Ice – are expected to be in the field for the 1 1/4-mile race that has come to be known as the “Midsummer Derby.”

Pletcher, Baffert

The field will also include trainer Todd Pletcher’s Stay Thirsty, who was never a factor in the Kentucky Derby but scored a nice win in Saratoga’s Jim Dandy. Also possible for the race is Coil, the Bob Baffert-trained colt who ran down Shackleford to win the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

Baffert has expressed unhappiness with what he considers a deep racetrack at Saratoga. He won’t be any happier about the nature of that surface after watching his Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Plum Pretty run out of gas during the run through the stretch in last week’s Alabama, so he could point Coil to another race.

Watch Uncle Mo

But regardless of which 3-year-olds ultimately end up in the Travers’ starting gate, the focus of the day will be on a horse running one race earlier on the Saratoga.

His name is Uncle Mo. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

A prohibitive favorite for the Kentucky Derby after an easy romp in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Uncle Mo went from heavy Derby favorite to startling question mark after a listless third-place run in the Wood Memorial. He was pulled from the Derby because of general listlessness later attributed to an unusual, but severe, inflammation of his liver and bile passages known as cholangiohepatitis.

REED PALMER | Churchill Downs Uncle Mo’s owner Mike Repole planted a kiss on trainer Todd Pletcher after their horse won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

REED PALMER | Churchill DownsUncle Mo’s owner Mike Repole planted a kiss on trainer Todd Pletcher after their horse won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

Trained well

The ailment was described from the get-go as treatable, and that prognosis appears to have been accurate. Uncle Mo has trained well since his return to the track and he is set to return to racing in Saturday’s $250,000 King’s Bishop, a race for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs run immediately prior to the Travers.

The guess here is that Pletcher will find himself dealing with some unusual emotions on Saturday. He will saddle Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty, both owned by New Yorker Mike Repole,  and the five-time Eclipse Award winner will likely be much more anxious about the results of the King’s Bishop than Stay Thirsty’s run in the historic Travers.

Uncle Mo has trained beautifully toward his return to competition. On Saturday, the racing world – and Pletcher – will have an idea of what that means.

A fit horse

“All indications are he is a very fit horse,” Pletcher said. “I don’t think he could be training any better.”

If he returns to the form he displayed last summer and fall, Uncle Mo’s star power would make him an intriguing contender for a Nov. 4-5 renewal of the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs that looms as a playground for a strong roster of European invaders. With good results on Saturday, Uncle Mo could emerge as a candidate for the $5 million Classic, the $2 million Dirt Mile or even the $1.5 million Sprint.

But those hopes surely hinge on a strong first step on Saturday.

Meanwhile, a win in Saturday’s big show by Churchill Downs-based Shackleford would place trainer Dale Romans’ colt in the shaky position of frontrunner for the Eclipse Award that will go to the 2011 3-year-old champion. That seat has essentially been vacant throughout a year during which members of this year’s 3-year-old crop have taken turns beating each other while generating mutuel win payouts of $20 or much more.

He threw in a couple a stinkers this year in the Fountain of Youth and Belmont Stakes, but Shackleford ran very well when he was nipped by Coil in the Haskell in his first post-Triple Crown race. Romans continues to think big with his flashy chestnut colt.

“He’s one of the few horses that I’ve ever had that the more work he does, the better he gets,” Romans said. “He won the Preakness, but he sure seems like an improving horse to me.”

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, the all-time training leader beneath the Twin Spires, has yet to grasp an elusive first victory in the Kentucky Derby. But he appears to have a major contender to win a second consecutive running of the Nov 4. Breeders’ Cup filly and mare turf in the 3-year-old Royal Delta. The daughter of Empire Maker added another major trophy to Mott’s magnificent trophy case when she romped past favored It’s Tricky for a 5 1/2-length win in last week’s Alabama at Saratoga, the 3-year-old filly counterpart to the Travers.
Mott won last year’s Ladies’ Classic with Unrivaled Belle.

Fillies vs. boys

The fillies viewed as the top contenders for the Ladies’ Classic – 2010 Kentucky Oaks winner Blind Luck and rival Havre de Grace – could face males in their next outings as each 4-year-old filly is being positioned for “Horse of the Year” consideration in this wide-open season. The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Blind Luck could face the boys in Del Mar’s Pacific Classic on Sunday. Havre de Grace, trained by Hopkinsville native J. Larry Jones, is set to battle males in Belmont Park’s Woodward on Sept. 3.  Rachel Alexandra won the Woodward in 2009 on her way to “Horse of the Year” honors.

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