With the Kentucky Derby near, racing fans will scrutinize this weekend’s Wood Memorial Stakes, Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby, plus other major prep races next week, in an effort to divine what will happen on the first Saturday in May.
Yet it’s likely that the Derby picture will not be significantly clearer after these races than it is now. The reason is that Uncle Mo, the Kentucky Derby favorite and the reigning champion of his generation, will probably win the Wood Memorial so effortlessly that his performance will be difficult to assess. In so doing, he will finish a pre-Derby “campaign” without precedent. He will go to Churchill Downs after making only two starts as a 3-year-old, and in neither will he have faced anything resembling real competition.
Uncle Mo was absolutely brilliant as a 2-year-old, winning all three of his starts and running away with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by 4¼ lengths, a performance suggesting that he could be one of the best young prospects in decades. When a reporter asked Todd Pletcher this week if his colt might be another Seattle Slew, the usually cautious trainer didn’t lower expectations. “When you’re thinking about the greatest horses of all time,” Pletcher said, “he has the potential to be in that group.”
But brilliant 2-year-olds do not necessarily maintain their form on the road to the Derby and beyond. No champion 2-year-old colt from 1979 to 2008 was a champion at 3. The pretenders are usually sorted out in the prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby, if not in the Derby itself.
But how can a handicapper evaluate Uncle Mo’s 3-year-old form? Pletcher likes to campaign his horses with a gentle touch, and he had Uncle Mo make his first start of the year in a minor stakes at Gulfstream Park against four totally overmatched opponents. His victory (in a slow time) was little more than a glorified workout.
The $1 million Wood was supposed to be more of a challenge for him, except that no legitimate challengers are showing up at Aqueduct. Not one of his nine rivals has ever won a stakes race worth as much as $100,000. Four of them are ex-claiming horses. On his best form, Uncle Mo is a dozen lengths faster than the field. If he wins by six lengths with jockey John Velazquez applying a hammerlock, what does it prove?
At the Kentucky Derby, handicappers may ask whether Uncle Mo has done enough as a 3-year-old to be sufficiently fit for the demanding race. But even if the champ is vulnerable, others colts are going to have to show in the prep races that they are worthy challengers. So far this spring, most Derby aspirants have discredited themselves.
That was certainly the case in last Sunday’s rich Florida Derby, won by Dialed In. The highly regarded colts To Honor and Serve and Soldat, both ranked among the top six in the Daily Racing Form’s list of Kentucky Derby contenders, delivered weak performances (and verified that their earlier successes had been the result of easy trips.) Dialed In rallied from last place to win over a 68-to-1 shot, but his narrow victory and slow final time were hardly imposing. He has the right style for the Kentucky Derby, but maybe not enough raw ability.