The true test for Uncle Mo probably won’t come until next month at Churchill Downs. In the meantime, the 3-year-old Indian Charlie colt will have to settle for trying to keep his undefeated record intact and adding one of the nation’s most prestigious Kentucky Derby (gr. I) preps to his résumé.
The saying in horse racing is that they don’t give $1 million away, but the general consensus is that Uncle Mo will have little trouble in the Resorts World New York Casino Wood Memorial (gr. I) April 9 at Aqueduct when he takes on nine seemingly overmatched rivals in his final Derby prep. Uncle Mo, pegged as the 1-5 favorite, is the only graded stakes winner in Wood field that includes only a couple of recognizable names from the Triple Crown trail.
It remains to be seen how much last year’s champion 2-year-old male will be tested in the nine-furlong Wood, but by listening to his trainer you get the feeling that it doesn’t matter who shows up.
“In most of his races so far, all he’s been running against essentially is the clock. He challenges himself, because he’s running so fast anyway it doesn’t matter who else is in there,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains the bay colt for Mike Repole.
“On paper, there isn’t a horse you would expect is going to run the kind of race it would take to beat Uncle Mo. But as we saw in the Florida Derby, sometimes these 3-year-olds improve a great deal from race to race this time of year, so there might be somebody in there that’s ready to run a superior race. We just want to see more of what we’ve seen from Uncle Mo every start of his life, and that is brilliance.”
Uncle Mo has been the Derby favorite ever since he annihilated the field in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last November at Churchill. Since then, he has added a victory in the one-mile Timely Writer Stakes March 12 at Gulfstream Park to his credentials, making him perfect in four lifetime starts. In his only other start in New York, Uncle Mo won the Champagne (gr. I) last October at Belmont Park. This will be his first start at nine furlongs, which Pletcher does not see as a concern.
One thing Pletcher will be hoping for is a dry racetrack. Though his star has shown the ability to handle an off track during works, the element of unknown always exists when weather becomes a factor. The current weather forecast calls for significant rain on Friday and a chance of showers on Saturday. Post time for the Wood—one of four graded stakes on Aqueduct’s card—is slated for 5:48 p.m. EDT.
“I wouldn’t be concerned about him handling the surface, it’s just always from a safety standpoint you always feel a little more comfortable when the conditions are best,” said Pletcher, who won the Wood a year ago with Eskendereya.
Uncle Mo, who was bred in Kentucky by D. Michael Cavey and is out of the Arch mare Playa Maya, will break from post 5 and should again be on or near the lead under regular rider John Velazquez. Ideally, Pletcher would like to see the colt follow a horse or two around for a half-mile or more, but he may wind up on the lead once again.
Uncle Mo has had two works since winning the Timely Writer by 3 3/4 lengths, the last coming on April 3 when he breezed four furlongs in :48 1/5 at Palm Meadows in South Florida. He arrived by plane in New York on the morning off April 6 without incident and was taken to Bemont.
“He seemed to ship in really well and everything went smoothly,” Pletcher said. “He’ll just have some routine gallops here at Belmont on Thursday and Friday and then ship over to Aqueduct the day of the race.”
Uncle Mo’s challenge in the early going could come from D. Wayne Lukas trainee Duca, a wire-to-wire maiden winner March 12 at Oaklawn Park in his fourth try. The son of Empire Maker ran a half-mile in :47.34 during that 1 1/16-mile victory before finishing up in 1:45.51. In his final work for the Wood, the bay colt blistered five furlongs in 1:00-flat, the best of 16 April 3 at Oaklawn.
Duca, owned by Robert Baker and William Mack, was a $375,000 yearling purchase. He will be ridden by Jon Court.
There are four challengers coming out of the March 5 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, a race won by Uncle Mo’s stablemate Stay Thirsty, who went on to finish a distant seventh in the April 3 Florida Derby (gr. I). Runner-up in the Gotham was Thomas McClay and Harry Nye’s Norman Asbjornson, who was beaten 3 1/4 lengths in his stakes debut. Based in Maryland for trainer Chris Grove, Norman Asbjornson broke his maiden and won an allowance race prior to the Gotham, both while racing on the front end. Julien Pimentel will have the mount.
Third in the Gotham was Diane Cotter’s Toby's Corner. The defeat broke a three-race win streak for the Bellamy Road colt. He scored the Feb. 5 Whirlaway Stakes in his previous start for trainer Graham Motion. He will be equipped with blinkers for the first time.
“It’s a $1 million race, it’s a grade 1, and it’s 2 1/2 hours away,” said Motion on the decision to run Toby’s Corner, the 8-1 morning-line second choice. "I’m not eager to run against Uncle Mo, but the second or third-place money is really good.
“He’s had a tendency to act up a little in the stretch. He puts his head up at the eighth pole, and I’m hoping the blinkers will help put his mind on business.”
Other Gotham returnees are Isn't He Perfect and Starship Caesar, sixth and seventh, respectively. Isn’t He Perfect returned to win a starter handicap March 20 at Aqueduct.
Also entering out of a graded stakes race are Preachintothedevil and Son of Posse, who were sixth and seventh, respectively, in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) March 26 at Turfway Park.
Rounding out the field are maiden claiming winner Full of Scoundrels and Arthur's Tale, who won a one-mile optional claimer in the slop March 23 at Aqueduct.
$1 million Wood Memorial (gr. I, Race 10, 5:48 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Starship Caesar (FL), C H Velasquez, 123, B Parboo
2. Toby's Corner (FL), E Castro, 123, H G Motion
3. Full of Scoundrels (NY), C C Lopez, 123, N Chatterpaul
4. Arthur's Tale (KY), R A Dominguez, 123, T Albertrani
5. Uncle Mo (KY), J R Velazquez, 123, T A Pletcher
6. Preachintothedevil (NY), J Alvarado, 123, G C Contessa
7. Duca (KY), J K Court, 123, D W Lukas
8. Norman Asbjornson (PA), J Pimentel, 123, C W Grove
9. Isn't He Perfect (KY), C Hill, 123, D Shivmangal
10. Son of Posse (KY), F Z Maysonett, 123, R Vitiello