That could change, of course. The winner might emerge as a star, a horse capable of winning the Preakness Stakes in two weeks and competing for the Belmont in June, and give a niche sport some much-needed buzz. But that could also be wishful thinking. When Uncle Mo was scratched on Friday morning with a mysterious internal illness, it marked the third straight year the most talented horse in the field didn’t make it to the starting gate.
In 2009, I Want Revenge and Quality Road failed to run because of injury. Eskendereya had to be scratched in 2010. And now Uncle Mo this year.
Uncle Mo wasn’t quite the morning-line favorite this year. That honor went to Dialed In, a lightly-raced Nick Zito-trained colt who won the Florida Derby. But virtually everyone acknowledges that if Uncle Mo were healthy, he’d likely be the horse to beat.
“He’s a very, very special horse,” said Todd Pletcher, who won his first Derby last year. “If he’s right, you come into a race feeling very confident.”
Uncle Mo hasn’t looked right, however, ever since he finished third at the Wood Memorial in early April. His absence is another blow to a sport that can’t seem to keep some of its best athletes healthy.
“I am very, very, very, very disappointed about this,” Pletcher said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a horse as good as Uncle Mo. We’ve had every resource to try to get this horse right, but we’re not there. I take it as a personal failure. We just don’t know what’s wrong with this horse, and it scares me.”
Even Zito, who will be trying to win his third Kentucky Derby Saturday and could benefit significantly from Uncle Mo’s absence, was quick to acknowledge what a bad break it was for horse racing.
“I am disappointed, like everyone else,” Zito said. “He is a great horse and I feel sorry for the connections. It’s a tough business we are in right now. I just would have loved to have seen Uncle Mo win the Wood and go onto the Derby. There would have been a lot of hype for the horse and the game needs that. It’s unfortunate and it will happen again, which is also unfortunate. It just goes to show you that it’s a very tough thing to get to the Kentucky Derby.”
Even this year, Uncle Mo wasn’t the only serious contender bounced from the field. Maryland-based trainer Graham Motion lost a promising starter in Toby’s Corner before the week had barely begun. Toby’s Corner won the Wood Memorial when Uncle Mo tired.
“It’s been a real emotional roller coaster for everybody, particularly for the guys at Fair Hill, who put so much into Toby’s Corner,” Motion said. “But that is the nature of the game and it’s what you grow used to.”
There will be a winner, of course, but who it might be is shaping up to be one of the toughest calls in years. Dialed In looks like a safe bet to hit the board, but he’s a closer without a lot of early speed, and asking him to weave through traffic and run the perfect race is a lot from a horse that’s only run four times in his career. And Zito knows as well as anyone that having the best horse at the Derby is no guarantee for success. Last year, he might have won his third Derby with Ice Box had the horse not run into traffic multiple times in pursuit of Super Saver.