Uncle Mo needs a tough test

| March 16, 2011

The favorite for the 137th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands is finally back in action.

Repole Stable’s Uncle Mo won last Saturday’s Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park as easily as expected.

It was his first start since his impressive romp in last fall’s Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs and “easy” was the rule of the day at the Florida track.

He was bumped by one of his overmatched rivals coming out of the gate in the one-mile race, but that was the only suspenseful moment of the day. Trainer Todd Pletcher’s colt quickly gathered himself and cruised to an easy lead in very modest fractional times.

It was a stroll in the park for Uncle Mo, as jockey John Velazquez never asked him for any serious running.

Finished well
The colt looked terrific from a physical standpoint and he finished up well, running a final quarter of :22 4/5 under the mildest of urging from Velazquez.
The race provided no clue as to how Uncle Mo might respond on the day when he was finally looked in the eye and challenged by another horse. He has yet to encounter a serious threat in any of his four career starts.

But it did show that the strong favorite to win this year’s Run for the Roses is doing well more than 50 days out, and it provided owner Mike Repole, who developed the popular Vitamin Water, with a chance to exhale.

A deep breath
“It’s the first time in four months that I’ve taken a deep breath. So it kind of feels good,” Repole said. “But when you have the best trainer in the world and he tells you how good this horse is, you’ve got to trust him.”

While Uncle Mo showed us nothing new in the first of only two races planned for his pre-Derby campaign, he gave us no reason to question his credentials. So he has to remain atop the list of “who’s hot” with America’s greatest race at Churchill Downs looming just over seven weeks down the road.

Pletcher cautious
Pletcher is taking a very cautious approach to the Kentucky Derby with Uncle Mo, who in the eyes of many fans is regarded as a very strong contender to win the Triple Crown, a task last accomplished by Affirmed in 1978.

The task of sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes – each run at a different distance at a different track – might be the most difficult challenge in sports.

During the ongoing Triple Crown drought, I believe there have been two horses that were clearly the best of their 3-year-old crops and had the talent to sweep the three races.

Those horses were Point Given in 2001 and Empire Maker in 2003, but neither managed to win the Kentucky Derby.,  Point Given was a dull fifth to Monarchos and Empire Maker could not run past Funny Cide in his race.
Both horses had very tentative and calculated campaigns coming into the Derby and I’ll always believe that their trainers, Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and the late Bobby Frankel, brought their horses to Louisville a bit undercooked, with Empire Maker’s bid hampered by a minor, but poorly timed, foot problem that emerged in the days leading up to the Derby.

With all due respect to the mile and a half Belmont Stakes, the “Test of the Champion” that wraps up the arduous Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby is the toughest of the three races to win and I’ll always believe both horses were a little short on preparation coming into the biggest race of them all.

The disappointing Derby efforts ultimately moved both horses and up and they easily won their next races, with Point Given taking the Preakness and Belmont and Empire Maker romping in the Belmont. But their Triple Crown opportunities vanished in the long homestretch at Churchill Downs.

It’s hard to imagine that Uncle Mo got much out of his victory in the Timely Writer, which amounted to little more than an afternoon workout. That makes his next start, which will likely come in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct April 9, a critically important outing for Uncle Mo.

Pletcher’s colt could be a force of nature like Big Brown, who was simply the best in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and treated his foes with disdain. But that is rarely the case on Derby Day.

Needs a test
Uncle Mo needs a test to prove his toughness as well as his ability, because that test will surely come at some point in the torrent of new experiences that will confront the unbeaten champion when he runs at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. He is clearly at the top of the crop with just over 50 days to go.

As Pletcher guides Uncle Mo along his cautious two-race pre-Derby campaign, potential Derby foes like Soldat, Premier Pegasus, The Factor, Sway Away, Dialed In, To Honor and Serve and Mucho Macho Man – none of whom was in the field Uncle Mo defeated in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs – are gearing up for their shot at the horse at the top.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, the 50 hours leading up to the race seem like a lifetime. Fifty days is an eternity.

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