On Thursday, Mike Repole confirmed that Uncle Mo's much-anticipated 3-year-old debut will likely be in the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 12. That will be the first of two Kentucky Derby preps for Mo, who will then be pointed toward the $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 9 at Aqueduct.
Now that we know where the Derby favorite is going, a couple interesting questions have been raised. How many horses, or probably more accurately, how few horses will show up to face him? And, if he faces what could be short fields, how tested will he be going into the Derby?
They are topics worth discussing because the likelihood that a large number of owners and trainers will be chomping at the bit to face Mo is pretty slim. Think about it this way:
You are an owner/trainer with what you think is a promising 3-year-old. Your goal is to make the Kentucky Derby, which will require a certain amount of graded earnings to qualify. How enticed would you be to show up in Tampa on March 12 to face a colt that is probably far superior to yours? And do you want to take the chance to find out when it would be just as easy to ship to Gulfstream, Oaklawn, or Fair Grounds to face more unproven challengers?
Granted, Tampa did raise the purse to $350,000 this year (up from $300,000 a year ago) and that attractive purse alone might make it tempting to some to take a chance. And, running second in a $350,000 race would bank you $70,000, which is a nice chunk of graded earnings. For sure, there will be some that will throw their hats into the ring, however they are more likely to be local horses, not shippers. If it were me, I think I'd look for an easier spot. There is something to be said about the spirit of competition, but when you're talking about a goal of making the Derby, that can wait.
Tampa Bay Downs' racing secretary Allison De Luca is already anticipating the challenge of recruiting suitable competitors if Mo does come.
"It's very exciting for us, but it probably would make it tougher, no doubt," she said. "I think a big thing will be seeing how the Sam F. Davis (Feb. 12) comes out. Sometimes you have a dominant horse come out of there and even the horses that run well in that race (would be willing to run in the Tampa Bay Derby) because they have an edge over the track. Some of the local trainers here don't care who is in the race. They don't hedge. They pick their spots and go for it because they like this track.
"But our stakes coordinator has already been down to Miami and met with most of the trainers with top 3-year-olds (at Gulfstream and Calder). I think we might have an advantage over some of the other tracks because Tampa has proven over recent years as being a good place to prep for the Derby (Super Saver was third in the Tampa Bay Derby last year). Plus, they know the weather is rarely a factor, and even if it does rain this surface gets better (with moisture). So we have that going for us, plus the bigger purse and it's now a grade II."
Like the Tampa Bay Derby, the Wood would seem unlikely to draw a large field of challengers for Uncle Mo either. First off, over the past six years the race has attracted an average field size of just over seven. With it being the last chance for 3-year-olds to punch their tickets to the Big Show, I can't imagine connections will be that eager to put all of their eggs in that basket, especially if Mo wins impressively in Tampa.
In addition to all of this, we already know that two of the other most accomplished 3-year-olds, To Honor and Serve (Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby) and Boys At Tosconova (Holy Bull, Florida Derby), are going to be on different paths than Mo through the Derby trail. And he definitely won't face stablemates Brethren and Stay Thirsty.
So I guess my point is this: Assuming Uncle Mo faces and disposes of short fields in both of his prep races (that's a big ‘if,' I know it's still very early), he will likely go into the Derby as one of the shortest-priced favorites in a long time. And he may do so without being stiffly tested as a 3-year-old.
In today's era of racing where top Derby prospects are raced as few as two times before the first Saturday in May, connections have to pick their spots carefully. By doing so and avoiding the top contenders, it can be tough to gauge how good the Derby favorites really are.
We will likely have to make that decision with Uncle Mo in a few months.