Preparing for the two days of Cup racing is more complex than merely googling “mint julep recipe.” This event is a different beast — “It’s our Super Bowl,” jockey Garrett Gomez said.
And indeed it is — this year, it’s a a two-day, 15-race, nearly 200-horse event with $26 million in purses in the sport’s cathedral, Churchill Downs.
Six of the 15 races are today, including the five restricted to females. The biggest race, though, is Saturday evening’s Classic. It’s the one that will give a prominent role, again, to a filly trying to beat the boys. Havre de Grace, a sentimental favorite because of trainer Larry Jones’s return from a health scare, will try to follow in the hoofprints of Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, becoming the third straight female to win Horse of the Year honors.
“We have always underappreciated fillies,” Wayne Lukas told ESPN’s Bill Finley. He won a Kentucky Derby (Winning Colors) and a Horse of the Year title (Lady’s Secret) with fillies. “The Europeans have always stepped outside the box and have no qualms about running fillies versus colts. I did it regularly in the ’80s and got some criticism for it.”
Finley writes: “Based on speed figures, males are generally faster than females. According to just about anyone’s numbers, the average $10,000 male claimer is always a few lengths faster than the average $10,000 filly claimer. But what we are starting to see is that a very good filly can beat very good males, and maybe there’s not a lot that separates the genders at the highest levels.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher didn’t have time to give Uncle Mo anything resembling a conventional sequence of prep races. He acknowledged that his plan was dictated by “the cards that we were dealt in the spring.” As a result, the colt will go into the most demanding test of his life without any stamina-building prep races. His minimal preparation — two starts since early April, at distances of seven furlongs and one mile — is a sharp contrast with his rivals’ regimens. Since the spring, Havre de Grace has made six starts at distances from 1 1 / 16 miles to 1 1/4 miles, winning five of them. The international star So You Think has raced seven times at 1 1/4 miles or longer in the last six months.
[Owner Mike] Repole understands that his colt will have to overcome significant disadvantages Saturday, but he relishes the challenge. “It will take not [just] a super horse but one of the greatest horses of all time to pull off a feat like this,” he said. And he relishes the drama: “I know as a racing fan I want to see Uncle Mo in the Classic. ... I think the fans want it, I think the media wants it, I think ESPN wants it, I think the Breeders’ Cup wants it.”
He omits the key question: Does Uncle Mo want it? Even superhorses such as Secretariat and Seattle Slew have lost races when their fitness or preparation were compromised. Ambitious owners cannot bend thoroughbreds to their will — and they shouldn’t try to do so.
Yes, Uncle Mo could verify his greatness if he wins Saturday.
But if he gets trounced — a distinct possibility — his 3-year-old season will go down as a total failure. A horse of his talent deserves a better legacy. And he deserves the chance to show what he can do when he is at his very best.
Andy Beyer: Look for vulnerabilities in favorites
Schedule/results: Breeders’ Cup site