Ky. Derby Trail: Mos and Cons

One of the great aspects of the Derby trail is that in most cases the decisions made are not proven right or wrong until the first Saturday in May. So, you can debate all you want whether the decision to start Uncle Mo’s 3-year-old campaign off in the newly created one-mile Timely Writer Stakes is a good one or a bad one. Right now, it is nothing more than fodder for opinion.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. That’s what the Derby trail is all about. Like everything, there are pros and cons regarding this decision. We don’t even know if this was the proverbial chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Or is that the cart before the horse? One of those two.

Did Gulfstream’s decision to write a race for Uncle Mo come from out of the blue and precipitate the decision to change direction from the originally scheduled Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) or did Gulfstream write the race because they knew the Men From Uncle would rather have stayed close to home than van four hours to Tampa? It has also been bantered about that WinStar Farm wanted Brethren to return to Tampa after his impressive score in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III). And why wouldn’t they? That is not to insinuate that WinStar Farm put the bug in Todd Pletcher’s ear. Pletcher is very selective what he allows in there. Let’s just say that it made sense for all involved to run Brethren over a track he’s already proven he likes. Pletcher’s horses have run well at Tampa over the past few years, but there are always those visions of defending 2-year-old champ War Pass, trained by Nick Zito, staggering home in the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby, beaten over 23 lengths, at odds of 1-20. Tampa’s surface can be quirky and not all horses handle it, even though form for the most part has held up pretty well there.

Getting back to the pro and cons, from a historical standpoint, only one horse – Big Brown -- in the last 30 years has won the Derby off only one two-turn race at 3. Before that, Genuine Risk was able to pull it off, as was Secretariat, but both those horses had an extra race under their belt at 3. Also, Secretariat had nine races at 2, while Genuine Risk had already won a major stakes at 1 1/8 miles at 2. It also is interesting to note for whatever it’s worth that both Secretariat and Genuine Risk lost the Wood Memorial, the race for which Uncle Mo is pointing.

It is important to remember that winning the Derby and remaining undefeated and maintaining the aura of greatness are totally separate from each other. When you have a potential superstar with the brilliance of Uncle Mo, the last thing you want is for him to peak before the Derby. Of course, you don’t want him to lose, but you can’t be afraid of losing or get too down if he does get beat. Kentucky Derby preps are for getting to the Derby in peak condition and are not meant to enhance a horse’s resume. Winning the Wood impressively didn’t help I Want Revenge and Eskendereya, who didn’t even make it to the Derby. On the other hand, the defeats of Secretariat, Genuine Risk and the 4-5 Monarchos became faded memories the minute they hit the finish line at Churchill Downs.

As for Big Brown, he truly was a freak that spring, and while Uncle Mo certainly has the potential to be a freak as well, it looks as of now that he will be facing a far better crop of 3-year-olds than Big Brown did.
Bob Baffert feels Uncle Mo is the kind of horse who would be better off with an easy race going one turn rather than having a tough race and risking injury, which may be the case. But from a foundation standpoint, there is always the danger that the Timely Writer will prove to be nothing more than a public workout. You definitely want a few horses in there that will at least make him get something out of the race to help get him toughened and seasoned enough to handle a 20-horse field going 1 1/4 miles two races later, especially with his style of running. Of the four horses recently who managed to win the Derby off only two starts at 3, Street Sense came from 19 lengths back, Mine That Bird came from 16 lengths back, and Super Saver came from eight lengths back. Even the speedy Big Brown had to adjust a bit, coming from sixth.

Although Big Brown was able to get away with two easy victories and only one two-turn race at 3, no horse has ever gone into the Derby off two easier scores at a mile and 1 1/8 miles than Bellamy Road, who won both his starts by a combined 33 lengths, earning an other-worldly 120 Beyer figure in the Wood. In the Derby, this freak in the making got cooked chasing a blistering pace and had nothing left at the end. That race put him on the sidelines until the Travers. The Derby has a way of turning gods into mortals, so you better get there the right way if you want to still be enshrined when you leave.

And if you’re looking ahead to the Triple Crown, again from a foundation standpoint, Big Brown was so far superior to his opponents he was able to dominate the Derby and the Preakness. But then came a quarter crack and a letdown in his training, and the result was that he came crashing down from his adrenalin high and fell apart in the Belmont Stakes. Despite being at least 10 lengths better than anyone in that field he just did not have the racing foundation to go 1 1/2 miles, combined with his physical setback and his mental meltdown. One of the reasons Smarty Jones, who was not bred for 1 1/2 miles, nearly was able to pull it off was that he not only was a potentially great horse, he had four races at 3, including three two-turn stakes victories.
We obviously are getting way ahead of ourselves, especially considering we have no idea the true depth of Uncle Mo's talent or what kind of competition he'll be facing.

But as we said, this is the time on the Derby trail for discussion and speculation. This could work out perfectly for Uncle Mo, who may be one for the ages; we just don’t know at this point. We are merely pointing out that the “one two-turn” path is not one normally taken. In the long run, however, it may not matter in the slightest where he runs as long as he gets something out of it and the race moves him forward. The rest will take care of itself.

We’re all aware that times are changing and the conservative approach, whether by choice or necessity, has proven successful. If Uncle Mo is able to pull this off, you can bet movie scripts will be popping into the heads of screenwriters across the country. So, if his connections want to try something different and attempt to set new standards of brilliance and possibly greatness, knowing the potential pitfalls, more power to them. That’s what this game is all about.

Owner Mike Repole embodies all the characteristics of his horse. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Both are dynamic and energetic and know how to command the stage. Repole has stepped out of the box so many times in his life he can’t imagine ever going back in. It’s not his style and it’s not Uncle Mo’s style. This is one case where man and horse were meant for each other.

The bottom line is, wherever and whenever Uncle Mo runs it’s going to be fun, so whether you agree with their decision or not, just sit back and enjoy the show.

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