Ky. Derby Trail: Cry Uncle

OK, so two weeks ago, someone tells you the April 9 Wood Memorial (gr. I), Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and Illinois Derby (gr. III) are going to be won by Toby’s Corner, Midnight Interlude, and Joe Vann, respectively, and that Arthur’s Tale is going to finish second in the Wood. Which of the following would have been your reply: a) Huh? b) Who? c) What? d) All of the above.

You can talk forever about why Uncle Mo could do no better than third in the Wood at odds of 1-10. Some feel he’s not a nine-furlong horse. Others feel he had little foundation, coming off only an easy victory against mediocre competition in a one-mile race that was catered for him. Still others claim he’s not sound and that he had medical issues following the Breeders’ Cup. And there are those who feel he has not developed physically or improved from 2 to 3.

Some or all of those concerns may be warranted. Then again they may not. If he did have medical issues last fall they were not made public, so there is nothing to go by other than hearsay. The only fact we have going for us is this: It’s the Derby trail. You won’t find any lions and tigers and bears and wicked witches and ill-tempered apple trees along the way. But any trainer will tell you that its perils make the yellow brick road seem like a stroll in the park.

As Uncle Mo attempted to traverse those tricky final miles on the trail, he had to pass by the recently strewn bodies of Premier Pegasus and To Honor and Serve, who are the latest to fall by the wayside. They along with several others, going back to Tapizar, serve as a constant reminder just how precarious a journey this is.

So, Uncle Mo at this point at least appears to have made it through the Wood unscathed.

So, now what? Are we simply looking at another Devil’s Bag or War Pass, or can Uncle Mo follow in the footsteps of other Wood victims Secretariat, Genuine Risk, Go for Gin, Monarchos, and Funny Cide, all of whom went home with the roses? Considering 13 of the last 19 Derby winners were coming off a defeat, you can’t hold losing against him. Most of those who did felt an undefeated superhorse is not supposed to lose. Again, this is the Derby trail where the words “undefeated” and “Kentucky Derby winner” have no bearing on each other. Every race is merely the means to an end.

We’re all aware of the negatives concerning Uncle Mo, so let’s deal with the positives. He needed to be tested and he was. He needed to get some foundation under him and he did, and when you’ve won all your races with ridiculous ease, sometimes the only way to get that bottom is to get tired.

When you can set the pace going 1 1/8 miles for the first time in your career and get tired and still come home in :12 4/5 that's not bad. As uncomfortable as he looked from the quarter pole to the sixteenth pole when he was unable to burst clear of the field with his usual kick and was trying to get in on occasion and had his head cocked to the outside, he actually looked better in the last 70 yards than he did the entire stretch run.

Once John Velazquez straightened him out and hit him left-handed he actually seemed to level off and was striding out better at the wire. The winner had to close in :11 4/5 to beat him. At the start, he had his back legs planted in the ground and had most of his weight in the back, which caused an awkward break. When he lunged forward he grabbed a quarter, causing a small superficial wound, which in itself was not an excuse.

OK, so we have presented the good and the bad. The colt’s detractors can fill in the ugly. The only important question left to answer is, can Uncle Mo win the Kentucky Derby off his two races this year? Todd Pletcher was quoted as saying he didn’t believe the horse was short in the Wood. The feeling here is that there is nothing wrong with him being a little short, especially with only two little half-mile breezes since his cakewalk in the Timely Writer. He had every right to be. That’s what the Wood was for – to make sure he’s not short for the Derby. If he wasn’t a little short for the Wood that means the Uncle Mo we saw was Uncle Mo at his best, which plays into the hands of those who feel he has not improved from 2 to 3. Perhaps the word “short” is a matter of semantics. But if he were my horse I would want to hope he was a little short and that the real Uncle Mo won’t be seen until May. 7.

The bottom line is, why are so many people down on Uncle Mo because of a 1 1/4-length defeat after all the excitement he has provided? We should be rooting for him to become the superstar we once thought he was. Whether he is or is not a Derby horse will be determined on the first Saturday in May and not before.

Toby or not to be

Let’s get to some of the winners and runners-up. Toby’s Corner established himself as a leading Derby contender. We will go more in detail on him in the weeks to come. Stuck at the back of the bunched up pack on the far turn, he seemed hopelessly trapped behind a wall of horses. When Eddie Castro took him out several paths to look for room he got sawed off and had to break his momentum. When he finally found room, Arthur’s Tale had beaten him to the punch and was running down Uncle Mo from the far outside. But Toby’s Corner, equipped with cheater blinkers for the first time, was relentless. He came charging late between Uncle Mo and Arthur’s Tale and just got up to win by a neck, coming home his final eighth in :11 4/5 and final three-eighths in a strong :36 2/5.

With his pedigree (Bellamy Road – Brandon’s Ride, by Mister Frisky), his running style, his 12-point Beyer jump and room for further improvement, and his top-class trainer (Graham Motion), he has as much going for him as anyone.

Arthur’s Tale had been thought of more as a Belmont Stakes horse, but he, too, is improving rapidly at the right time and has to be considered for the Derby, assuming he has enough graded earnings. The last time Tom Albertrani had a classic 3-year-old for Darley was in 2006 when he unleashed another unknown 3-year-old named Bernardini to win the Withers and Preakness. He now is in position to do it again with a son of Bernardini.

As for the Santa Anita Derby, where in the world did Midnight Interlude pop up from? The son of War Chant did not make his career debut until Jan. 29 and had only three career starts, having broken his maiden in a front-running romp on March 20. Yet here he was in the Santa Anita Derby running like a seasoned pro, relaxing off the pace in fourth. Despite getting hung five-wide on the first turn and five-to-six wide on the second turn, he bore down on the classy and speedy grade I winner Comma to the Top, with 12 races already under his belt. When Comma to the Top (who is discussed farther down) drifted out badly at the three-sixteenths pole, he forced Midnight Interlude to steady and lose momentum. Victor Espinoza had to steer him abruptly to the outside and Midnight Interlude came with another run. Inside the eighth pole, Comma to the Top came out again, and Midnight Interlude again had to hesitate and steer to the outside. Making a third run, he finally collared Comma to the Top at the wire to win by a head.

You just don’t see horses this inexperienced turn in this kind of a performance, especially coming out of a maiden race. Trainer Bob Baffert, who had to scratch Jayicto from the race with a minor injury, had decided to enter Midnight Interlude after the colt turned in a super six-furlong work in 1:10 3/5. We are aware no horse who did not race at 2 has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882, but, boy, did this colt look extraordinary. And in this kind of a year, all historical trends, whammies, or whatever you want to call them are ripe for the taking.

A quick mention of third-place finisher Mr. Commons, who also ran a big race to be beaten 2 1/4 lengths, especially considering jockey Mike Smith said he seemed to be experiencing some kind of breathing problem in the final furlong.

Comma one, comma all

So, Comma to the Top “isn’t a Derby horse” and is “not being pointed to the Derby.” Well, guess what? After finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby, it turns out Comma to the Top is indeed a Derby horse and may be pointed to the Derby. Is anyone really surprised? As we mentioned last week, it’s hard to step off the Derby trail and look in another direction with the Twin Spires visible in the distance. No matter what an owner or trainer says, the only time a horse definitely is not pointing to the Derby is after the entries close.

Does Comma to the Top belong in the Derby? Actually, the question this year should be, does anyone not belong in the Derby? If his connections feel he all of a sudden is a Derby horse and all of a sudden can get the mile and a quarter, who is to say they are making a mistake? You can say there are already about a half-dozen speed horses pointing to the Derby, but if all their connections feel their speed horse will put away all the other speed horses and then have enough to hold off all the closers then let them run. There is no logic when it comes to the Derby. There is only the Derby. As the connections of Dialed In and Toby’s Corner and all the closers would say, “The more speed horses the merrier.”

Comma to the Top ran a game race in the Santa Anita Derby, and he’s shown he’s a classy horse, but before he runs in the Derby let’s hope they can get him to run a straighter course than he did on Saturday.   

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