Derby question: has Uncle Mo lost his mojo?

| April 13, 2011

The road to Kentucky Derby 137 started off fairly smoothly, but has been notable over the past two weeks for its potholes and unexpected turns.

But no event on the road to the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs has been quite as jarring as the result of last week’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, which left a single question on the lips of Derby fans of all types:

Has Uncle Mo lost his mojo?

Given his domination of his rivals in his first four races, Uncle Mo seemed to have what appeared to be a group of overmatched foes in his first race at 1 1/8 miles at his mercy as he cruised on the lead under John Velazquez in very easy fractions. When the field turned for home, the racing world waited for Uncle Mo to kick clear of the field and validate his status as one of the heaviest favorites for the Kentucky Derby in recent memory.

But he didn’t.

Mike Repole’s previously unbeaten champion, never challenged at any point in his first four races, found himself in a fight on this day – and he would not be up to the challenger.

Two beat him!

Not only was Uncle Mo passed by the unheralded Arthur’s Tale in deep stretch, he was passed again by Toby’s Corner, who got up to win the Wood in a finish that, for many, called to mind the shocking upset loss by Secretariat in the same race before he launched his mythic Triple Crown run in 1973.

It was a jarring result for racing fans who were dreaming not only that Uncle Mo would win the Derby, but might have the right stuff to win the first Triple Crown since Affirmed’s sweep in 1978.

Assuming that all goes well in the blood work scheduled for Uncle Mo as this column went to press, trainer Todd Pletcher’s main Kentucky Derby hope will travel to Churchill Downs on April 18 to continue his training for the Run for the Roses. He remains a major contender for the Kentucky Derby, but it’s unlikely that he will be favored.

The Factor favored?

That role will likely be filled either by trainer Bob Baffert’s The Factor, who could be the Derby choice if he runs a big one in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, or the Nick Zito-trained Dialed In, who won last week’s $1 million Florida Derby with a last-to-first rally that has lots of people thinking about how much he’ll love the 1,234 1/2-foot homestretch beneath the Twin Spires.

For some bettors, the loss by Uncle Mo was disappointing because they wanted to bet against a huge favorite on Derby Day. They were hoping that was the performance he would turn in on the big day, not in his final prep for the Derby.

Not suited?

It’s impossible to assess exactly where the reigning champion fits in the Derby picture right now. For those who were suspect about his abilities, the fade in the stretch seemed to confirm that he might not be suited to 1 1/4 miles on Derby Day.

But there are also positive aspects buried in his first loss. Although he faded to third, he still ran his final eighth of a mile in 12.80 seconds – which is not great, but not horrible. If Pletcher did not quite have the screws tightened on Uncle Mo, he should actually benefit from the race in terms of experience and conditioning.

Wood winner better?

And there is also the chance that Wood winner Toby’s Corner is a much better horse than most people realize. I fall into that group. I’m not ready to put him in the Derby winner’s circle, but his win in the Whirlaway at Aqueduct was impressive, and it was followed by a third to Stay Thirsty, Uncle Mo’s stablemate, in the Gotham. Trainer Graham Motion added blinkers to Toby’s Corner’s equipment for the Wood, a change that tends to focus a horse’s attention and is one of the most significant changes a trainer can make, and the colt overcame substantial traffic problems to win Saturday’s race.

Win for daddy?

Toby’s Corner is a son of Bellamy Road, who dazzled the racing world with a 17 1/2-length win in the 2005 Wood before he flopped as the favorite with a seventh-place finish in the Derby won by 50-1 shot Giacomo. To me, he’s one of the most interesting longshots in a suddenly wide open race, and might be the horse to make up for his father’s Derby disappointment.

Bottom line: it’s too early to be sure that Uncle Mo won’t find his mojo before Derby Day.

Impressive filly

The most impressive performance by a 3-year-old last weekend was, in my view, turned in by a filly. Fox Hill Farm’s Joyful Victory defeated a small field of three rivals in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but she did it with ease and now has a pair of lopsided wins in as many starts this spring.

All winter long I believed a gray daughter of Tapit would win the Kentucky Oaks. That filly was Dancinginherdreams, who was last in Keeneland’s Ashland last Saturday and is clearly going the wrong way. But the other gray daughter of Tapit, Joyful Victory, is clearly getting better as each day passes on the road to the Kentucky Oaks.

She is trained by Hopkinsville, Ky., native J. Larry Jones, who won the Oaks in 2008 with Proud Spell, and saddled Fox Hill’s ill-fated filly Eight Belles to finish second to Big Brown 24 hours later in the Derby.

Back on job

Jones, back on the job after a year-long sabbatical, is clearly impressed with his latest star and compared her after Sunday’s win to Eight Belles, who is quite likely the best horse he has trained.

“It is uncanny how much she’s like Eight Belles, and it’s more than just because they are both grays,” Jones said. “I was looking at her the other day and I said I know she was born the year she died, but it’s almost like she consumed her. It’s like she’s come back.”

Don’t expect a Derby bid by Joyful Victory, but she is looking more like the filly to beat in a wide open Kentucky Oaks picture. But continued progress from her two spectacular runs this spring could put her in the running to be not only the best filly in this 3-year-old crop, but perhaps the best 3-year-old – period.

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