It has been 126 days since the racing world last saw Uncle Mo in a competitive fashion, which means there have also been 126 days of his connections dealing with the "what ifs."
What if the colt who ran every foe off their feet last season can't maintain his brilliance? What if the son of Indian Charlie doesn't make a successful transition from 2 years old to 3? And what if, after all the hype that has been building since November, the undefeated champion ends up being just another flash in the pan?
One race isn't going to provide definitive answers. But in Saturday's $100,000 Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Uncle Mo can give the first indication as to whether such ponderings will eventually become moot.
The 2011 debut of the reigning juvenile champion comes in a 1-mile contest that, on paper, should be little more than a paid appearance by the most talked about winter-book Kentucky Derby favorite in years.
Although Saturday's slate of preps also features undefeated Brethren making his second start of the year in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby and Grade I winner Jaycito making his season debut in the Grade II, $250,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park, Uncle Mo's first race as a sophomore is the one sure to grab the headlines.
Uncle Mo's body of work has been a classic example of quality over quantity. No other horse of his generation has run as fast or with as much ease as Mike Repole's bay colt has displayed in his three career starts.
His 43/4-length win in the Grade I Champagne last fall showed he could take the heat up front and keep going. When Uncle Mo won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 41/4 lengths, he relaxed in his first two-turn test before blowing to the lead with a turn of foot that left even his famously reserved trainer, Todd Pletcher, a bit awestruck.
The five other horses entered in the Timely Writer don't figure to pose much of a challenge, but that hasn't lessened the level of anxiousness in Uncle Mo's camp.
"I think you worry about everything," Pletcher said. "The main thing is we just want a good clean race and have a healthy start to the year for him. We just hope he shows up and runs the way he's capable of and everything will take care of itself."
Uncle Mo — the only Grade I winner in the Timely Writer field — has had six timed workouts this season, his most recent a 4-furlong breeze in :48.80 last Sunday. Considering stablemates Stay Thirsty and Brethren both won their season debuts while largely on the same schedule, fitness should not be a major issue as Uncle Mo returns from his layoff.
"We've been able to breeze whenever we wanted to breeze, and he's been training as well as he ever has," Pletcher said. "The races will only get tougher, the competition gets tougher, so we're just looking at this as the first step."
Although Uncle Mo was entered in the Tampa Bay Derby as a backup in case the Timely Writer did not fill, Pletcher will still be strongly represented in that race with WinStar Farm's Brethren.
Brethren, a half-brother to 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, won the Grade III Sam F. Davis by 4 lengths over the same track and distance on Feb. 12 and is facing largely the same group of horses he beat that day.
The most competitive prep Saturday should be the 11⁄16-mile San Felipe, where a deep field of 10 is scheduled to go to the gate.
Grade I winner Comma to the Top will be seeking his first win on dirt and looking to rebound off a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 12.
Perhaps no horse in the San Felipe has more at stake than Jaycito. The winner of the Grade I Norfolk Stakes last October is making his first start since being transferred from Mike Mitchell to trainer Bob Baffert and his first outing since bolting on the first turn of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile where he eventually finished seventh.
The son of Victory Gallop is another who has not yet won on dirt, but Baffert has been thrilled by the way Jaycito has trained up to what will be one of only two expected prep races for him heading into the Kentucky Derby.
"I was looking at some of the PP's (past performances) and there are some fast horses in the (San Felipe)," said Baffert, who will also saddle Awesome Patriot in the race. "But if you're going to start (on the road to the Derby), you've got to run."