Todd Pletcher understands that expectations for Uncle Mo far exceed an anticipated victory in Saturday's $100,000 Timely Writer at Gulfstream Park. With 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta retired and confirmed in foal to Bernardini, his undefeated three-year-old colt is widely viewed as Thoroughbred racing's Next Big Thing -- a rare specimen with the talent and charisma to capture the imagination of the American public.
"It's a position you want to be in -- to have a horse of his caliber. Along with that, obviously, comes a lot of added exposure and excitement and pressure and everything else that goes with it," Pletcher acknowledged to gulfstreampark.com.
"Zenyatta's shoes are big shoes to fill. He's 3-for-3 so far. She was able to exceed that by a long ways. The races will only get tougher; the competition gets tougher; the field sizes get bigger; so we're just looking at this as the first step and we'll go from there."
Uncle Mo has been rated as the 3-5 morning-line favorite in a field of six entered in the one-mile stakes written especially to attract the Eclipse Award-winning colt to Gulfstream Park for his three-year-old debut.
"We're happy the Timely Writer filled and we're able to run Uncle Mo at Gulfstream," said Pletcher, who has been training Uncle Mo at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream's satellite training facility.
"Palm Meadows is a similar surface and we feel like it's a good place to start a season. The horse has been training well. Everything's gone according to plan. We've had cooperative weather. We've been able to breeze whenever we wanted to breeze, and he's been training as well as he ever has."
Uncle Mo will likely be an even shorter price than his morning-line odds at post time due to his superior racing record, which includes a maiden victory at Saratoga by more than 14 lengths last August, a victory in the Champagne S. (G1) at Belmont Park in October and a stunningly dominant 4 1/4-length score in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill Downs in November.
"I think the Breeders Cup Juvenile was his best race," Pletcher said. "It was his first race around two turns against the best horses in the world. I think it was important that it was Churchill Downs and he's proven that he can handle the surface. It was his most impressive performance, although all three were pretty impressive."
Pletcher expects Uncle Mo to offer more of the same in the Timely Writer.
"I think he's grown a touch, but he was a pretty big two-year-old -- and, obviously, a very talented two-year-old. So we don't feel like we need to improve a lot. It seems like he's come along and done everything we'd expect him to do as a young three-year-old.
"Mentally, he's always been a very, very easy horse to be around, so, so far, everything's been great.
"I think you worry about everything," Pletcher admitted. "The main thing is we just want a good, clean race and have a healthy start to the year for him. We just hope he shows up and runs the way he's capable of and everything will take care of itself."
As Uncle Mo starts on the Road to the Kentucky Derby in the Timely Writer, his trainer is brimming with confidence in his colt's foundation.
"I don't think we have to prove anything," Pletcher said. "We've checked off a lot of boxes in a short period of time; he's handled the Grade 1 competition twice; he won the first time out, which makes you worry less about a layoff; he handled the surface at Churchill; so a lot of those things, he's proven he can handle."
Pletcher now knows how it feels to win the Kentucky Derby, having saddled Super Saver for a victory last year at Churchill Downs. Uncle Mo, though, has set the bar a little higher this year.
"Certainly, it takes a little heat off of it," he said. "Anytime you have a horse like Uncle Mo, and if you get lucky enough to show up at Churchill Downs undefeated, then that'll be plenty of excitement of its own."
Uncle Mo is the only Grade 1 winner in the Timely Writer, which attracted a trio of lightly-raced colts in the Richard Dutrow-trained ROCKING OUT (Include), a first-out winner who subsequently finished a troubled third in a Gulfstream allowance last month; the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained RATTLESNAKE BRIDGE (Tapit), who scored at first asking last month at Gulfstream Park; and the Tom Albertrani-trained GALLANT DREAMS (Bernardini), a maiden winner in his second start at Belmont last fall who'll be making his 2011 debut.
MADMAN DIARIES (Bring the Heat), who finished seventh in the February 26 Hutcheson (G2) at Gulfstream after winning the Sapling (G3) at Monmouth last year, was entered, but trainer Wesley Ward has emphasized that the speedy gelding could well be withdrawn. Rounding out the short field is SCHOOLYARD CAT (Catienus), whose only victory in seven starts came in a $35,000 claiming race at Gulfstream three starts back.
McLaughlin is certainly not entertaining the thought of pulling off an upset, but will saddle Rattlesnake Bridge for the one-mile stakes with the sole objective of gaining experience for his promising colt in only his second lifetime start.
"We entered in an allowance race, and the allowance race didn't fill," McLaughlin said. "There were only four that entered into it. We felt like we need to run to see where we stand. It's good timing moving forward and from his maiden win.
"We didn't want to hook up with Mo, obviously -- none of us wanted to. But we just needed to run and a mile suits us well. He's a nice colt who needs racing."
Rattlesnake Bridge made an impressive debut to racing on February 12 when he closed from off the pace to win going away by 1 1/4 lengths under John Velazquez.
"This is jumping up from a maiden win to hooking the two-year-old champion. It's not ideal, but we're trying to learn about our horse," McLaughlin said. "If he gets the mile and comes running and gets second or third, he'll learn from it. He needs racing."
Purchased by Hill House for $450,000 last year, Rattlesnake Bridge will be ridden for the first time by Jose Lezcano. Velazquez, of course, will renew his perfect partnership with Uncle Mo.