UNCLE MO (Indian Charlie) makes his final prep for the Kentucky Derby (G1) in Saturday's $1 million Wood Memorial (G1) at Aqueduct and the unbeaten champion juvenile will go postward as an overwhelming favorite in the 10-horse field. An easy winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and Champagne S. (G1) at two, Uncle Mo opened his three-year-old season with a 3 3/4-length romp against overmatched foes in the March 12 Timely Writer S. at Gulfstream Park, and he'll face a mostly unproven group of challengers Saturday.
Since Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in 1930, 20 Derby winners have prepped in the 1 1/8-mile Wood, most recently Funny Cide in 2003. Owner Mike Repole, who grew up in Queens just a few miles north of the Big A, would like nothing more than to send Uncle Mo off to Louisville having won his hometown track's most important race.
"Pleasant Colony was the first horse I remember who won the Wood, and I was there when I was a teenager for Broad Brush (1986), Gulch (1987) and Easy Goer (1989)," Repole said. "To me, Aqueduct was THE racetrack, and from being a 13-year-old kid who took the bus there to having the favorite for the Wood is like coming full circle. If I had a choice of what race I wanted to win in New York, other than the Belmont Stakes (G1), it would be the Wood Memorial."
None of Uncle Mo's rivals have won a graded stakes race. Blessed with an abundance of natural speed, Uncle Mo drew a perfect starting spot in post 5 and could easily find himself on the early lead with John Velazquez. The well-built bay colt proved that he could rate in the Breeders' Cup two starts back, but the Todd Pletcher trainee led wire to wire by default in the Timely Writer and doesn't have a front runner to his inside in the Wood starting gate.
Uncle Mo's BRIS Speed numbers (110 twice) and Late Pace ratings (125 in the Timely Writer) are vastly superior as well, and his lengthy stride makes him an excellent candidate to excel at longer distances this spring. His first attempt at a 1 1/8-mile trip comes in the Wood.
"He's never given me any concerns about distance limitations in any of his races or any of his training, so we're looking forward to it," said Pletcher, who won last year's Wood with Eskendereya. "We wanted a 1 1/8-mile prep before the Derby, so that's one of the reasons we chose the Wood a while ago."
Uncle Mo is the 1-5 favorite on the Wood morning line.
NORMAN ASBJORNSON (Real Quiet) and TOBY'S CORNER (Bellamy Road), the second and third-place finishers, respectively, in the March 5 Gotham S. (G3), are the top challengers. Gotham winner Stay Thirsty (Bernardini) didn't flatter them with his dull seventh in Sunday's Florida Derby (G1), but both colts will be making their second graded stakes start in the Wood and merit strong consideration for runner-up honors.
Norman Asbjornson reeled off a pair of sharp wins over maiden special weight and entry-level allowance rivals at Parx Racing before posting a surprising second at 47-1 odds in the Gotham. He appears to be training forwardly at Bowie for his Wood engagement, recording a five-furlong bullet work in :59 last Saturday, and the Christopher Grove pupil will retain the services of jockey Julian Pimenthal.
"He should be double-digit odds again on Saturday, and hopefully, he'll defy them again," Grove said. "He's had two great works going into this race, and he's an improving horse."
Norman Asbjornson is the 15-1 fourth choice on the morning line.
Toby's Corner is the only member of the Wood field with an open stakes win to his credit, winning the February 5 Whirlaway S. in the slop two starts back. Trainer Graham Motion had been considering Saturday's $300,000 Illinois Derby (G3) at Hawthorne.
"It's a $1-million race, it's a Grade 1 and it's 2 1/2 hours away," said Motion, who is based in Maryland, on the decision to run Toby's Corner in the Wood. "It's just a ship on the day of the race, while (the Illinois Derby) is a 14-hour ship. I think he'd be the second favorite in either race. I'm not eager to run against Uncle Mo, but the second or third-place money is really good."
Listed as the 8-1 second favorite on the morning line, Toby's Corner will be equipped with first-time blinkers Saturday and breaks from post 2 with regular rider Eddie Castro.
"He's had a tendency to act up a little in the stretch," Motion said of the equipment change. "He puts his head up at the eighth pole, and I'm hoping the blinkers will help put his mind on business."
ARTHUR'S TALE (Bernardini) exits an encouraging win over allowance/optional claiming rivals on the inner track and has been installed as the 12-1 third choice. A $750,000 yearling purchase, the Darley-owned colt broke his maiden at Aqueduct on December 2 and subsequently finished fourth in the Count Fleet and Whirlaway for trainer Tom Albertrani.
"Distance-wise, it should be a benefit to us," Albertrani said. "He's coming off a nice allowance win, and it looks like he's made some improvement. You always have to respect the favorite, but we're looking at something later on, like the Belmont Stakes. If we run a credible race here, we'd be happy with that."
Leading rider Ramon Dominguez will pick up the mount on Arthur's Tale.
PREACHINTOTHEDEVIL (Pulpit) and SON OF POSSE (Posse), the respective sixth- and seventh-place finishers in the March 26 Spiral S. (G3) on Turfway Park's Polytrack, will both wheel back off a 14-day rest in the Wood. DUCA (Empire Maker), who exits a wire-to-wire maiden special weight victory at Oaklawn Park, is set to make his stakes bow for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Duca shows a recent five-furlong bullet work in preparation, but the speedy colt is drawn outside of Uncle Mo in post 7. It will be interesting to see whether the 20-1 morning-line outsider attempts to cross over in front of the odds-on favorite during the early stages of the Wood.
Rounding out the field are ISN'T HE PERFECT (Pleasantly Perfect), who was sixth in the Gotham and subsequently won a starter allowance on March 20; FULL OF SCOUNDRELS (Great Notion), a $12,500 maiden claim who finished second next out to Isn't He Perfect on March 20; and STARSHIP CAESAR (Repent), last of seven in the Gotham.