Denk on Horses Derby contender profiles
Profile: Uncle Mo
Uncle Mo winning the Timely Writer. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Critics of last year’s 2-year-old champion, Uncle Mo, seized on the Grade 1 Wood Memorial as their “told you so” moment. His steady fade in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Derby prep race was proof to them that the son of Indian Charlie was a glorified miler, easy to toss out as a wagering option in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.
So did Uncle Mo deserve the hype, and does he still deserve consideration in the Derby?
The answer here is an emphatic “yes.”
In the three races in his juvenile campaign, Uncle Mo showed the extremely rare ability (particularly for a dirt horse) to track or set quick fractional times and finish strongly.
Uncle Mo ran six furlongs (six-eighths of a mile) in 1:09.21 in his 14-length debut victory on August 28, 2010, at Saratoga. His time was great, with faster internal fractional times than set in the Ballerina Stakes (a Grade 1 race for older fillies and mares at seven furlongs) and the Grade 1 King’s Bishop (for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs) later on the race card.
Just as impressive was the way Uncle Mo finished in his first start: On the lead through four furlongs in :45.67 seconds, he ran his final quarter-mile in :23.54 while under a hand ride.
Uncle Mo validated that promise when stretched out to a one-turn mile in the Grad 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. Dueling on the inside, Uncle Mo ran internal splits of :22.91, :23.51, :24.55 and :24.04 seconds. Note the acceleration in the final quarter. Uncle Mo had more to give.
Trying two turns and a 1 1/16 miles in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, Uncle Mo showed the ability to sit off horses for the first time. He took over after six furlongs in 1:11.92 and came home in :30.68 (that would be a good final 5/16 of a mile even for a deep closer on dirt).
As he was bounding through the stretch, opening up on the field, announcer Trevor Denman noted his “big, leaping strides.” It was one of the best performances in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile history, and it came on the same surface Uncle Mo will see in the Kentucky Derby.
Uncle Mo’s debut as a 3-year-old in the Timely Writer Stakes, a one-turn mile race fabricated just for him at Gulfstream Park, was both interesting and widely misunderstood. He bumped and broke slow from the rail, but thanks to a small field devoid of pace, he was able to come up the inside and assume control of the race.
Uncle Mo’s internal fractions in the Timely Writer were :25.52, :24.06, :24.11, and :22.87 seconds. His final quarter-mile was the fastest I have ever seen on Gulfstream’s main track. He galloped out enthusiastically.
The Timely Writer, though, was a curious race for a champion to return in, and because the pace was slow, and the final time — 1:36.56 — was as well, at least by Uncle Mo’s standards, this excellent effort was interpreted as underwhelming. The case against Mo began building, and his doubters felt vindicated by what happened next.
Sent off as the 1-to-9 favorite in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Uncle Mo set what should have been for him comfortable fractions. Yet for the first time in his career he was unable to quicken in the lane. The winner, Toby’s Corner, and runner-up Arthur’s Tale passed him at the sixteenth pole. Uncle Mo’s bounding, athletic stride was replaced by beaten perseverance as he galloped evenly to the wire in third place.
The Wood was Uncle Mo’s first try at a mile and an eighth, and trainer Todd Pletcher immediately disagreed with those who suggested the added distance got him beat. Based on Uncle Mo’s extraordinary internal fractions going one mile and 1 1/16 miles, I agree with Pletcher. Something else was wrong. Did Uncle Mo have a bone chip? Was he sick? Had he gone through an awkward growth spurt that upset his balance?
After the race, Uncle Mo’s team announced he had a gastrointestinal tract infection. Given the unquantifiable nature of that condition as it relates to performance, and the history of excuse-making in horse racing, particularly for valuable sire prospects, many people are going to revert to their previously held opinion of Uncle Mo. That is probably wise.
If you didn’t like Uncle Mo’s chances before the Wood, you have all the reason in the world to leave him off your tickets in the Derby. His pedigree is neutral at best for 10 furlongs, and there are questions about his health.
If, however, you believe in the greatness he showed in his previous starts, and if he looks like himself again in his final pre-Derby work, wouldn’t it be smart to forgive his effort in the Wood? If the answer is yes, then your odds just got better on one of the best 2-year-old champions in recent history.