UNCLE MO (Indian Charlie) launched his three-year-old season with an easy victory in the Timely Writer S. at Gulfstream Park and the unbeaten champ will receive his final prep for the Kentucky Derby (G1) in the April 9 Wood Memorial (G1). Saturday's performance won't change many opinions about him -- his supporters were thrilled with the impressive showing while his detractors still don't like his chance at 1 1/4 miles.
PREMIER PEGASUS (Fusaichi Pegasus) turned the San Felipe S. (G2) at Santa Anita into a rout, winning by a record 7 3/4-length margin over the late-rallying JAYCITO (Victory Gallop), and the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) produced a surprising conclusion with the 43-1 WATCH ME GO (West Acre) edging the 86-1 CRIMSON KNIGHT (Leroidesanimaux [Brz]) by a neck. The 1-2 favorite, BRETHREN (Distorted Humor), was 3 1/4 lengths back in third.
The Derby is seven weeks from Saturday.
Uncle Mo returned against a group of maiden winners at a one-turn mile distance tailor-made for his natural speed, and his connections are taking the easiest route possible to the Derby, with a likely short field of second- or third-stringers awaiting him at Aqueduct in the Wood. And while he's probably five lengths better than any other three-year-old at distances up to 1 1/8 miles, some people feel 10 furlongs will be the equalizer that sets him up for defeat.
I'm wondering how they'll beat him. Uncle Mo appears to have filled out nicely this year -- his rear end looked bigger in the post parade -- and his stride through the stretch was once again tremendous. He covers a lot of ground in an efficient manner.
It's exciting to see Uncle Mo motoring for home. The Timely Writer was basically a trial race, but Uncle Mo ran his last quarter-mile in :22 4/5 and actually faced a little adversity when the rival to his immediate outside slammed into him at the start. He was off slowly but quickly recovered, and jockey John Velazquez rode him out an extra furlong after finish line. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt wasn't tired heading back to the winner's circle.
We're still nearly two months out, but the quality of the three-year-old division remains questionable at this stage. The final prep races will be critical. Right now, there isn't much separating the likes of DIALED IN (Mineshaft), SOLDAT (War Front), STAY THIRSTY (Bernardini), Jaycito, Premier Pegasus and perhaps a few others -- they could take turns beating each other for second behind the only superb talent, Uncle Mo.
But the Wood could expose flaws in Uncle Mo's armor or other developments can change the landscape. It's too early to be drawing definitive conclusions.
Tampa Bay Derby
Watch Me Go ran for a $75,000 claiming tag two starts before the Tampa Bay Derby, winning a 6 1/2-furlong sprint by eight lengths over the Oldsmar, Florida, oval. He was unplaced in his first four stakes attempts, including a non-threatening fifth at 45-1 odds in December's Inaugural S., but did enter the Tampa Bay Derby off an encouraging third in the February 12 Sam F. Davis S. (G3), his first start around two turns.
The dark bay colt recorded a career-best effort in his second try at a route Saturday, advancing into contention on the far turn before wearing down a game Crimson Knight, and Watch Me Go now has the graded earnings ($232,500) to make the Derby field.
Conditioned by Kathleen O'Connell, the Florida-bred is out of a Deputy Minister mare so it's no surprise to see him handle the 1 1/16-mile distance, but his affinity for the Tampa Bay oval, coupled with Brethren tossing in a clunker, contributed mightily to the upset. Watch Me Go received a 95 BRIS Speed rating.
The runner-up effort of Crimson Knight was baffling -- he broke his maiden for a $25,000 tag on December 26 and was claimed for only $16,000 from his previous outing, a 1 1/16-mile turf affair on February 24. And he ran a big race in defeat Saturday, doing all the dirty work for Watch Me Go by chasing Brethren during the early stages. After disposing of Brethren just inside the eighth pole, the Gerald Bennett trainee came up a little short in the final strides.
Claiming him for $16,000 proved to be a very savvy and profitable move by his current connections, but Crimson Knight did not the flatter the formerly well-regarded Derby prospect Brethren.
I was expecting a move forward from Brethren, who earned only a 94 BRIS Speed rating when defeating a weak field in the Sam F. Davis, but he went backward on Saturday. The Pletcher pupil will attempt to rebound in the April 16 Arkansas Derby (G1).
Brethren will follow the same path of half-brother Super Saver, who wound up third at 1-2 in the Tampa Bay Derby two starts prior to winning the Kentucky Derby, but Super Saver had two-year-old stakes foundation that Brethren lacks, recording a fourth in the Champagne (G1) prior to a five-length victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). And Super Saver didn't finish behind a couple of claimers when running a game race in defeat at Tampa.
Premier Pegasus began to swoop past rivals on the far turn of the San Felipe, stormed to the lead in upper stretch and poured it on all the way to the wire, establishing himself as a leading Derby contender out West. He won his first three starts last year in front-running fashion, including the seven-furlong Hollywood Prevue (G3), but his ability to rate in midpack behind a wicked early pace (:21 3/5 and :44 2/5) served him well on Saturday.
Bred, owned and trained by Myung Kwon Cho, Premier Pegasus figured to receive plenty of stamina from his Kentucky Derby-winning sire and displayed a nice turn of foot while making his two-turn debut in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe. His 100 BRIS Speed rating was a little disappointing, but he did post his final five-sixteenths in :31 2/5, and he's eligible to keep showing more at longer distances.
Premier Pegasus will be the horse to beat if he runs back in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby (G1), but Cho is also considering the Arkansas Derby.
Jaycito ran well in his first start since a troubled effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) in which he tried to bolt and exited the race with a chipped tooth, and the Grade 1 winner may continue to build upon Saturday's positive performance. Transferred to three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert over the winter, the bay colt dropped to the rear of the 10-horse field and left himself with plenty to do at the top of the lane.
Jaycito ran by most of the field in the stretch, finishing 1 1/4 length clear of BENCH POINTS (Benchmark) in third, and Baffert will continue to tighten the screws for his final prep. He has the pedigree to flourish at 10 furlongs as well as a dangerous conditioner. While he took the blinkers off for the San Felipe, they'll be back on for the Santa Anita Derby.
Saturday's Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn Park is the only graded stakes for three-year-olds this weekend and a deep field of 13 is set for the 1 1/16-mile event. I give six of the runners a legitimate chance at the win.
THE FACTOR (War Front) will make his two-turn debut for Baffert following a pair of sensational victories sprinting at Santa Anita. The speedball may be geared toward shorter distances, but his pedigree is suitable for the trip and The Factor is a threat to shake loose early and rate on the lead beneath Martin Garcia. I don't like him for the Derby, but I won't dismiss his chances on the front end in the Rebel.
SWAY AWAY (Afleet Alex) also invades from Southern California. The Jeff Bonde pupil returned from a 6 1/2-month layoff with an encouraging second to The Factor in the seven-furlong San Vicente (G2), offering a visually impressive late rally, and he'll stretch out for the first time on Saturday. He's an obvious candidate to handle the added ground with his breeding and his BRIS numbers are strong, but I think Sway Away will be overbet off perhaps a false finish last time.
Sway Away was still last turning for home in the San Vicente and the front runners were coming back to him in the stretch after an opening half-mile in :43 2/5. I've seen a lot of horses offer a similar move, rallying dramatically for a minor award while not seriously threatening the winner, and they seldom improve upon the effort with a victory in their next start. Sway Away can't afford to leave himself too much to do in the Rebel stretch, but he's eligible to outperform my expectations.
J P'S GUSTO (Successful Appeal) was in tight during the short stretch run of the Southwest (G3) but managed to finish up well for second once clear. The Grade 1 winner could find the 1 1/16-mile distance within his scope and must be viewed as a dangerous stalk-and-pounce candidate with Ramon Dominguez, but he's zero-for-four in two-turn races.
ELITE ALEX (Afleet Alex), who has been favorably compared to Derby winner Street Sense by jockey Calvin Borel, rallied into a threatening position at the top of the Southwest stretch but lacked the needed rally, settling for third. He was fanned six wide, but it marked the second straight start where he came up a little short in the final furlong. On the flip side, the Tim Ritchey trainee gained valuable stakes seasoning that afternoon and should receive a more favorable pace set-up in the Rebel. Elite Alex could be along in time.
Southwest winner ARCHARCHARCH (Arch) will look to secure favorable early positioning from his rail post. He broke his maiden three starts back in the six-furlong Sugar Bowl S. at Fair Grounds and exited a disappointing fourth-place effort in the Smarty Jones with a foot problem that quickly healed. The Jinks Fires charge was overlooked at 14-1 last time and could offer decent value once again in the Rebel. I like what I've seen from the improving colt and will use him in any multi-race wagers.
ALTERNATION (Distorted Humor) is my top pick. Following a seven-length maiden win at Remington Park in December, trainer Donnie Von Hemel resisted the urge to throw his colt straight into stakes waters, electing to run him in a pair of allowance events at Oaklawn. The late runner responded with two excellent wins, defeating Elite Alex the first time and Smarty Jones runner-up Dreaminofthewin (Successful Appeal) in the latter, and he's posted two recent bullet works in preparation for his stakes debut. Alternation is well drawn in post 2 and should be in full flight after the leaders on the far turn. I think he can carry his momentum forward in the stretch for a minor upset.
Enjoy the racing.