A Derby Turned Upside Down

At 5:52 p.m. EDT on April 9, Kentucky Derby 137 officially became a free-for-all.

Uncle Mo's defeat in the Wood Memorial was shocking. There is no getting around it. Very few people expected the undefeated 2-year-old champ and Derby favorite to get beat, let alone challenged, by a seemingly overmatch field that did not include a single graded stakes winner. Take nothing away from Toby's Corner and Arthur's Tale--both of them ran very nice races, especially Toby's Corner, who was not a fluke winner and has a big chance four weeks from now. But nobody saw this coming. Not Graham Motion. Not Tom Albertrani. Not the 12,000 that showed up at Aqueduct, including Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher.

Couple Mo's stunning defeat that with the fact that in the 48 hours prior to that we lost major contender Premier Pegasus and fringe contender To Honor and Serve, and Bob Baffert's main gun, Jaycito, was scratched from the Santa Anita Derby, and we are staring dead on at a Derby that has become as wide open as its been in a long, long time.

With only a few preps remaining, the favorite, by default, becomes Dialed In, a stone cold closer who has made only four starts in his career. That is, unless The Factor--a one-dimensional, front-running speed-baller that not even Baffert believes is a best suited for two turns--wires the field in next week's Arkansas Derby. In that case, he probably becomes the public's choice.

After that? Well, you have Mo, who in a matter of one race prompted more people to jump off his bandwagon that any horse in the history of the sport (more on that in a minute); a Santa Anita Derby winner (Midnight Interlude) that was a maiden three weeks ago, two supposedly proven colts (Soldat and Stay Thirsty) that now have major questions marks next to their names after dull Florida Derby efforts; a workmanlike but unflashy top contender that also comes out of a third-place finish in a major prep (Mucho Macho Man); four horses that ran way above anything they had shown previously to win major preps (Pants On Fire, Twice the Appeal, Animal Kingdom, and Toby's Corner); three others that may make the Derby field but would have be considered big-time longshots (Decisive Moment, Watch Me Go, and Shackleford); and a slew of others that could run well in one of the the two remaining major preps but would still go to Churchill Downs with a lot of doubters (Santiva, J P's Gusto, Astrology, Archarcharch, Nehro, Elite Alex, Brethren, etc.).

There are your main contenders for the first Saturday in May as it stands on April 10. Not exactly an overwhelming group. At this point, to say the race is going to be a good betting opportunity is an understatement--which is a shocking turn of events considering that just a few hours ago Mo seemed to be on his way to becoming the heaviest Derby favorite that we would have seen in a long time.

So what happened with Mo? So far, the consensus from the "experts" seems to be that he just can't get the distance because of his pedigree. One major writer has even gone as far as to say he wonders why "the connections would even think about going on to the Kentucky Derby." Talk about a rush to judgment.

Here is one man's opinion: Uncle Mo's defeat was not as bad as it seems. Shocking? Absolutely. A loss that he cannot recover from? I don't believe so. It's impossible to quantify how much the grabbed quarter affected his overall performance, but I'm going to offer a guess that it didn't have a major impact on the outcome and say that he lost mainly because he was a short horse. No more, no less. For the first time in five lifetime starts he just didn't fire. He was going nine furlongs for the first time and it took more out of him than most of us anticipated, including Pletcher. But let's keep it in perspective; he was beaten 1 1/4 lengths, not 5 1/4 lengths.

Does this mean he can't win at 10 furlongs a month from now? Most people now seem to think so, but I don't. Not with the less than stellar field that is heading to Louisville. Not with the talent that he possesses. Not after watching how well he ran at Churchill in November. Not when six of the last 10 Derby winners lost their final preps. And not with Pletcher at the helm.

With his stunning Wood defeat, Uncle Mo almost certainly lost his role as Derby favorite and along with it lost a lot of members on his, until recently, jam-packed bandwagon. There is certainly more doubt about whether he can take the roses, and rightfully so, but he still has a big chance four weeks from now. If he's healthy, I still think he is the best 3-year-old in the country.

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