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TrackNotes: The Problem With Uncle Mo

In New York sports, more than any other town, you lose a few games and you are the lowest bums in existence. Win a few, and you are the juggernaut that only the Big Apple deserves and produces.

So it was fitting that this year's Kentucky Derby "it" horse, Uncle Mo, who just minutes before was touted as the next coming, touched off such revulsion after losing the Wood Memorial Saturday at Aqueduct, Ozone Park, NY.

TVG's Simon Bray and Todd Schrupp pulled an Ivory Soap and declared 'Mo a 99-44/100 percent lock. They would have declared a total full-nelson, but for things like his gate stall not opening or John Velazquez getting tossed off or the wicked witch releasing the flying monkeys, and not in that order of probability.

But as often happens in this game, the aftermath of Uncle Mo's "monumental" upset, finishing a tiring third at ridiculous odds of 1-9, has proven quite revealing as we ponder how he could have lost and where he goes from here. And why all those grizzled horseplayers drank the Kool-Aid and pounded 'Mo at the windows.

As the last gasps of hype lingered into the new week, there were those who reminded us that even the great Secretariat had lost this race - finishing third himself - on the way to winning the Triple Crown. If Secretariat was almost always a Ferrari running on all cylinders, Uncle Mo might be more like an Arab sheikh's gold-plated Mercedes that won't start. At least as far as his supposed collision course with the first Saturday in May is concerned.

Soon after the Wood, rumors began flying on the Internet and the demolition of his four-race reputation commenced in earnest. In classic Guys and Dolls style, this one guy's buddy's in-law swears Uncle Mo had surgery in Florida to clean out a joint. You could supposedly even see the surgery scar on his right front foreleg. Hence, the extended Christmas vacation.

Besides, as simply a precocious 2-year-old he had dream trips in both the Champagne last October at Belmont and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (the two horses he beat that day, Boys At Tosconova and Rogue Romance, are out of training with injuries). And don't forget that measly $78,000 Gulfstream stakes, the Timely Writer, where he ran against a bunch of lowly stiffs in a race basically written for him.

And one excuse he might have had in the Wood is that he grabbed a quarter and almost lost a shoe in the race, which could explain why he switched leads so often.

We won't get anything out of trainer Todd Pletcher, but I think the reason he didn't get going with Uncle Mo earlier and into a more authentic Derby prep regime is that he has a fragile horse who was anything from tired to sore to scoped over the winter. But this just in yesterday, Pletcher announced that the horse had/has a gastrointestinal infection and that it explains everything. And not to worry, 'Mo's not canceling his deluxe suite at Churchill Downs.

But why all the hype in any case? For one thing, America seems to need singular messiahs in its sports; witness Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. Zenyatta is gone, although her personal marketing campaign continues, with sales spikes ahead when they unveil her statue or mark the obligatory anniversaries on the fives.

Racing seems to have adopted the same playbook with Uncle Mo, no doubt capitalizing on basic human neediness in identifying with a horse, any one horse. People yearned for it with Afleet Alex and the lemonade stand and Big Brown, despite his bad feet. It might have happened for real with Ghostzapper, until he was stolen away from the fans and sent to the breeding shed.

As for Uncle Mo, he came into the Wood 4-0, with one of the most impressive races of Breeders' Cup weekend, a 4.5-length win in the Juvenile. He also added the 2-year-old Horse of the Year Eclipse Award to his trophy case in January.

But as the Jerry Baileys and Randy Mosses of the world declared just moments after the Juvenile win, Indian Charlie colts can't get the distance, meaning the 10 furlongs of the Derby. Urban myth? Not really, it's pretty much true. And what chance will an undertrained, under-raced and out of shape Uncle Mo have to show us definitively that he can get the mile-and-a-quarter? Or not?

Despite the fact 2-year-olds sometimes do not improve, or improve much, in their 3-year-old year and a horse has only once parlayed the Juvenile into a Derby win (Street Sense in 2006-07), the 'Mo's hype train rumbled on.

If you had obeyed a basic rule of handicapping, you would have seen that his work record was blank all the way from the Breeders' Cup the first week of November to a 4-furlong work at the Palm Meadows training facility in Florida on February 13. His four-furlong works, a paid workout at Gulfstream and a bad showing in the Wood do not a foundation make.

Early on, Pletcher had said 'Mo would, for goodness' sakes, run in only two preps for the Derby and would start working in late January, pointing to the 8.5 furlong Tampa Bay Derby March 12 on the sandy-demanding Tampa Bay Downs course and then the Wood.

But the horse didn't start training until mid-February and then abruptly Pletcher changed course and announced 'Mo would go in the Timely Writer. The next red flag was that the Timely Writer was run at only a mile, 8 furlongs. This was puzzling, or telling. If Uncle Mo was so good and prepared, why would he turn back to a mile at Gulfstream, which he ended up running in 1:36-2 and a mediocre 89 Beyer Speed figure, against a bunch of going-nowhere horses?

Despite a trying start, 'Mo ran well in the Wood, taking on the pace for most of the race. But just after the eighth pole, he was swallowed up by Arthur's Tale (now off the Derby trail with an injury) and then by eventual winner Toby's Corner.

Like the big-for-his-age Little Leaguer, the other kids have perhaps caught up with him, especially when he might be misplaced in races longer than a mile. You keep hearing that as a Triple Crown candidate at the 10-, 9.5- and 12-furlong classic distances, 'Mo is going to make a helluva 7- or 8-furlong horse someday. Yet another who may not belong in the Kentucky Derby?

As for the Derby - and don't be surprised if he doesn't even make it into the gate - I can't believe he will have any of the foundation he needs. I'll need to see a nearly blazing 5-furlong-with-a-big-runout work from him fairly soon and Pletcher won't do that. I'll hope he still takes a lot of that civilian Derby money and he'll need to be a big price with a great post position for me to remotely consider him.

The cycle doesn't seem to end, so keep an eye out for The Factor. If he impresses in the Arkansas Derby Saturday, he's your new next coming.

The Disabled List
The Life At Ten saga continues.

Jockey John Velazquez was fined $10,000 for his part in the debacle that was the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic. Half of it will go to the Disabled Jockeys Fund.

His sin is that while he twice told a nationwide ESPN audience that Life At Ten didn't seem herself before the race, yet he failed to inform the gate veterinarians and ask them to look at her.

You know how I feel about the incident. While JV apparently violated the cockamamie "protocol" as divined by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, remember that jockeys are independent contractors, riding at the whims of trainers and owners.

If Johnny V does anything to get that horse scratched, he loses business and suffers big-time at the peak of his career. He took a huge left hook to the chin "for the industry" and I respect the hell out of him. In the end, he did the right thing for the mare, running her easily around the track.

And here's some news. Life At Ten ran second in an $80,000 optional claiming race at Gulfstream Sunday. Trainer Todd Pletcher wasn't there.

Both Pletcher and chief steward - now there's an oxymoron - John Veitch were also aware of Life At Ten's troubles that day.

I hope to have some related news on those two guys at some point. Veitch? Maybe. Pletcher? Don't count on it.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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