UNCLE MO (Indian Charlie) went down to defeat in Saturday's Wood Memorial (G1), crushing the sprits of both admirers and detractors with his third-place finish.
Last year's invincible superstar, who fans hoped would snap a 32-year Triple Crown drought, was nowhere to be seen as Uncle Mo looked like a terrible prospect for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby (G1) distance. And bettors licking their chops to play against him at short odds in the Derby watched in disgust as Uncle Mo probably lost his grip on the favorite's mantle, weakening against a suspect field of rivals in his first start at 1 1/8 miles.
All hope isn't lost for Uncle Mo. Trainer Todd Pletcher thought he could take it easy with him, but the plan backfired Saturday. Pletcher scrapped the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby (G2) in favor of the one-turn Timely Writer S. at Gulfstream Park, which pitted Uncle Mo against a short field of entry-level allowance rivals, and the colt gained little fitness from the paid workout. Uncle Mo came up short in the Wood, but he remains eligible to rebound at Churchill Downs.
As a result of his Wood flop, Uncle Mo came back to the pack and the Kentucky Derby looks wide open. It's not an intimidating group at the top and once you get past DIALED IN (Mineshaft), THE FACTOR (War Front) and Uncle Mo, there's little separation among the rest of the contenders.
One thing lacking from the final round of prep races is a fast horse. Dialed In has been roundly criticized for his winning time in the Florida Derby (G1), nearly a full second slower than the filly R Heat Lightning (Trippi) a day earlier, but his 101 BRIS Speed rating is better than the figures earned in the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby (G1), Louisiana Derby (G2), Illinois Derby (G3), Spiral (G3) and Sunland Derby (G3). It's been a dismal year so far in terms of Speed numbers.
The Factor has been an exception, registering BRIS Speed ratings of 106 (twice) and 104 in his last three starts, and he'll make his first attempt at nine furlongs in Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1). The closing-day feature at Oaklawn Park shares the spotlight with the $750,000 Blue Grass S. (G1), which features Derby contender SANTIVA (Giant's Causeway) against a mostly turf-oriented field on the Polytrack at Keeneland.
The Derby is three weeks from Saturday.
Uncle Mo was being chased by a couple of overmatched longshots during the opening six furlongs of the Wood, and his inability to shake loose from those spent rivals leaving the far turn spelled doom for his chances in the stretch. He was tiring before the final furlong and I think his lack of fitness was more to blame than the 1 1/8-mile distance.
That was the facet of his victory in the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) that was so impressive, his acceleration into the stretch. I could envision the long-striding colt carrying a dynamic turn of foot off the far turn that puts away the Kentucky Derby by midstretch, but the Wood raised serious concerns about whether he's continued to improve as a three-year-old.
Pletcher's pampered him so much this year that the Wood Memorial served as our only real gauge, and it wasn't flattering. Negative rumors about Uncle Mo's health have circulated in the aftermath and his connections are blaming the defeat on a gastro infection that isn't supposed to cost him any serious training time.
The loss could still turn out to be a blessing. Pletcher doesn't like the five-week spacing of the Triple Crown races -- he prefers much more time between starts -- and saving something for the Preakness (G1) and Belmont S. (G1) probably weighed heavily into his planning, barring some health concern that hasn't been revealed. Pletcher can no longer afford to coddle the two-year-old champion in the weeks leading up to the Derby -- it's now a matter of redemption for the criticized handler -- and if there's something wrong physically, Uncle Mo won't make it to the starting gate.
Uncle Mo was much faster than the competition last year, netting a 110 BRIS Speed rating in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and major improvement in his third start off a four-month layoff is the goal. Distance has always been the biggest perceived liability for the son of Indian Charlie, but having Arch as his broodmare sire helps Uncle Mo's chances.
Whether he can rise back up remains uncertain, but I'm not giving up on Uncle Mo yet.
TOBY'S CORNER (Bellamy Road) punched his Derby ticket with a neck victory. Eighth of nine runners after three-quarters of a mile, the one-run closer had to dodge traffic, and was still four lengths back in sixth with only a furlong left to run. He rallied determinedly between rivals to get up in time, generating a 105 BRIS Late Pace rating for his finish.
Patrons at Laurel Park had a couple of opportunities to see him this winter, as Toby's Corner broke his maiden by 10 3/4 lengths in late November before recording a 1 1/4-length decision over allowance/optional claiming foes on January 12. The Graham Motion-trained colt finished fast to win going away by two lengths in his stakes debut, the February 5 Whirlaway S., and registered a career-best 103 BRIS Speed rating on the sloppy inner track at Aqueduct.
Toby's Corner lost momentum with a non-threatening third behind Stay Thirsty (Bernardini) in the March 5 Gotham S. (G3), but improved significantly in the Wood. However, his 97 Speed rating was light and Toby's Corner's ability to take another jump forward in the Derby is highly questionable. He would move up on a wet track at Churchill Downs.
Runner-up ARTHUR'S TALE (Bernardini) exited the Wood with an injury and has been sidelined.
Santa Anita Derby
MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE (War Chant) wasn't on the Kentucky Derby radar screen following his maiden win on March 20, but the bay colt jumped into the fray with an upset in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby. The top two contenders, Premier Pegasus (Fusaichi Pegasus) and JAYCITO (Victory Gallop), were both scratched from the 1 1/8-mile event, and Midnight Interlude was sent off as the 13-1 seventh choice among nine contestants.
He was wide entering the first turn and continued to travel well off the rail down the backstretch, stalking COMMA TO THE TOP (Bwana Charlie) in fourth. When jockey Victor Espinoza asked for run entering the stretch, Midnight Interlude went after Comma to the Top. That rival tried vainly to stop him, drifting out repeatedly and forcing Midnight Interlude to briefly steady in midstretch, but the recent maiden winner would not be denied, getting up to win by a neck.
Midnight Interlude's 98 BRIS Speed rating was easily a career best and he owns plenty of pedigree for 10 furlongs. Trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, is another plus, but Midnight Interlude beat a pretty soft group of rivals Saturday and will be up against it next time. He didn't make his career debut until January 29, and no horse unraced as a juvenile has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882. Midnight Interlude doesn't look fast enough to break that historic trend.
Comma to the Top ended 2010 on a high note, reeling off five straight wins, including the CashCall Futurity (G1), but he's now dropped three straight as a three-year-old. And nine furlongs took a serious toll on Saturday as he was out of gas in deep stretch. He's back under consideration for the Derby, but his breeding and Speed ratings offer little hope.
Premier Pegasus is out of Derby consideration with an injury, but the foot issue that kept Jaycito out of the Santa Anita Derby has improved, according to Baffert. Jaycito will make his final prep in the April 23 Lexington S. (G2) at Keeneland.
Illinois Derby (G3) winner JOE VANN (Silver Deputy) isn't nominated to the Triple Crown and has no chance of making the Derby field. Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner WATCH ME GO (West Acre) was exposed in his first start outside of Florida, struggling home a disappointing sixth as the 2-1 favorite, but he has the graded earnings ($235,500) to run despite the discouraging performance at Hawthorne.
I like speed in both major preps this Saturday.
The Factor isn't difficult to come up with following his runaway victory in the March 19 Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn, but the Arkansas Derby sets up differently with a couple of nice colts from the Pletcher stable, BRETHREN (Distorted Humor) and DANCE CITY (City Zip), bringing quality speed to the equation. The Factor didn't face any early pressure in the Rebel.
I thought it was an advantage for him to draw post 3, one spot inside of Brethren with Dance City in post 9, and The Factor will get to the rail with Martin Garcia and attempt to slow down the pace.
If the speed falters, SWAY AWAY (Afleet Alex) and ELITE ALEX (Afleet Alex) are possible beneficiaries, each sporting first-time blinkers.
I didn't like Sway Away at short odds (9-5) in the Rebel, but he'll offer much better value this time around and trainer Jeff Bonde's decision to keep him at Oaklawn in the interim, with a pair of swift works over the track, looks wise to me. I'm expecting a much-improved performance.
Elite Alex found his best stride too late in a paceless Louisiana Derby (G2) last time, closing for fourth, but the maiden winner should receive a more favorable set-up as well as a ground-saving trip from post 2. He can rally into the frame with Calvin Borel.
The Blue Grass will feature a field of 12 highlighted by Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner Santiva. A good second to Mucho Macho Man (Macho Uno) in the February 19 Risen Star S. (G2), Santiva ran well in his lone start on Polytrack, rallying for runner-up honors in October's Breeders' Futurity (G1) following a troubled start. The Eddie Kenneally-trained colt is a very logical top choice, but I'll tab the front-running JOES BLAZING AARON (Graeme Hall) for an upset.
Listed at 12-1 on the morning line, Joes Blazing Aaron captured a $50,000 turf claiming event at Gulfstream Park before recording a wire-to-wire victory in the grassy Palm Beach S. (G3) on March 12. He'll make his first start for trainer Mike Maker on Saturday.
Jockey Garrett Gomez has already piloted a pair of wire-to-wire winners at Keeneland and speed is dangerous on the Polytrack, with Lilacs and Lace (Flower Alley) wiring the Ashland (G1) at 48-1 last weekend. I don't see any other legitimate speed in the Blue Grass field.
Enjoy the racing.