Other Sports

John Clay: Uncle Mo's loss gives Derby new favorite

Sorry for your luck, Nick Zito.

You probably thought you could enjoy the peace and quiet at your Churchill Downs barn during Kentucky Derby week while the media horde was over at Todd Pletcher's barn trying to scoop up every nugget available on horse racing's next superstar, Uncle Mo.

That was until the superstar went splat.

The Derby picture took a totally unexpected turn Saturday when the 1-10 favorite Uncle Mo, the unbeaten 2-year-old champion and presumed prohibitive Run for the Roses favorite, not only was beaten, but beaten badly by a weak field in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

Pletcher's prize 3-year-old led at the top of the stretch, but faded all the way to third as Toby's Corner came home the winner, followed by Arthur's Tale.

Surely, the Uncle Mo meltdown will lead to Florida Derby winner Dialed In, trained by the aforementioned Zito, being pegged as the one to beat once the equine elite arrive in Louisville for the first Saturday in May.

After all, Dialed In has won three of four starts. He's the first 3-year-old this year to capture two graded stakes (the Grade III Holy Bull and the Grade I Florida Derby) on dirt at a mile or more.

In Zito, the Robert LaPenta-owned entry has a trainer with two previous Kentucky Derby wins under his belt, plus a second-place finish last year with Ice Box.

Not that many were talking about all that before Saturday. Uncle Mo had looked darned near unbeatable in winning his first four races by a combined 27 lengths. Plus, Pletcher had broken his Derby maiden with Super Saver last year, and was off to another terrific start in 2011, having already won 26 stakes races through last weekend.

True, Secretariat didn't win the Wood, either. In 1973, he too was a beaten third. But horse racing was a different world back then. The Wood Memorial was Secretariat's 12th start on his way to winning the Triple Crown and inspiring a movie. He carried a 10-race win streak to New York. Saturday was Uncle Mo's fifth career start.

After winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 4¼ lengths last year to clinch his Eclipse Award, the son of Indian Charlie had been babied through his 3-year-old campaign. Previous to the Wood, Uncle Mo's only race this year was something called the Timely Writer, a race created specifically by Gulfstream for the Mike Repole-owned entry to make, and win, his 2011 debut.

Plus, the way Uncle Mo tired in the stretch, new questions will arise about about whether he can get the mile-and-a-quarter distance of the Derby. Only one Indian Charlie offspring has ever won a graded stakes race going 10 furlongs. That was Fleet Indian in the Delaware Handicap way back in 2006.

To be sure, there are plenty of other questions to be answered and pondered before May 7. Three of those inquiries can be thrown in Bob Baffert's direction.

Is his lightly raced Midnight Interlude as good as he looked in the Santa Anita Derby, after being cut off in the stretch only to come back and win Saturday's Grade I? Is The Factor, another Baffert trainee, who will run in the Arkansas Derby next Saturday, more than a speed demon?

And will Baffert's Jaycito, scratched from the Santa Anita Derby with a bruised front hoof, come back in time to run in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes on April 23?

And what about the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes next Saturday? Had Uncle Mo waltzed in the Wood, Keeneland's Derby prep would have surely been considered an afterthought. Not now. And not with a full Blue Grass field hoping to nail down a spot in the Derby post parade.

When it comes to the Derby morning line, however, Dialed In has probably nailed down the top spot on Mike Battaglia's list. And expect plenty of media to be poking around Zito's barn.