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Pletcher maps out Kentucky Derby path for Uncle Mo - will it be enough?

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The second that the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile crosses the wire in any given year the discussion immediately turns to whether that colt can win the Derby the following spring.  Twenty-six times in the last twenty-seven years the answer to that question has been a definitive "no".  Only 2006 Juvenile winner Street Sense returned the following spring to capture glory on the first Saturday in May.

If a Juvenile winner accomplishes his feat at Churchill Downs then the expectation for Derby success increases significantly.  Given the fact that many horses simply don't run well at Churchill their first time it's considered a huge bonus to already own a win over the surface, especially if that win came around two-turns.  That is where we find ourselves as we look to the 2011 Kentucky Derby - a brilliant winner of the 2010 Juvenile at Churchill Downs that has many dreaming of Derby success.

This year's Juvenile winner, Uncle Mo, has dazzled racing fans in his three victories as a two-year-old and is clearly the top juvenile in the country.  He easily dispatched of his Juvenile rivals last Saturday and showed a willingness to rate off the pace in his first start going a route of ground.  He appears head-and-shoulders better than his peers at this moment in time and it's not hard to envision this colt being even better as a three-year-old next spring.

An article at the Thoroughbred Times indicated that trainer Todd Pletcher will send Uncle Mo to Florida for the winter and then run him in a one-turn race for his three-year-old debut, followed by a start in the Wood Memorial - meaning a likely two-race prep campaign for Uncle Mo.  While there are many good things working for Uncle Mo, talk of a two-race prep season starts to create questions about his chances to win the Derby.

Uncle Mo is a son of Indian Charlie out of an Arch mare (Playa Maya).  Anybody that likes to follow pedigree, even at a far distance, probably knows that Indian Charlie hasn't produced a ton of offspring that want to run a mile and a quarter.  Filly Fleet Indian was a good two-turn horse and son My Pal Charlie won the Super Derby.  But for every Fleet Indian and My Pal Charlie there are many more sprinters and milers dotting the horizon.

Uncle Mo's pedigree doesn't mean that he can't or won't win the Derby - horses out run their pedigree all the time (Smarty Jones in 2005) - but it's certainly an obstacle to overcome.

Questions of stamina along with a light light three-year-old prep campaign immediately makes me think about another notable Todd Pletcher trainee from this year, Quality Road.  Most players recognized Quality Road's deficiencies with regards to running a mile and a quarter during this year; he was brilliant at a mile but you started to see cracks in the armour when he was stretched out to a mile and an eighth.  In order to get him ready for the Breeders' Cup, Todd Pletcher skipped the Jockey Club Gold Cup at the classic distance and instead attempted to develop Quality Road's stamina during training.  Although the given excuse for Quality Road's poor performance in the Classic was that he didn't take to the track, it's hard not to conclude that the distance was also a factor.

If pedigree and foundation aren't big enough question marks, Uncle Mo will also have to overcome a stack of history in order to find success in the Derby.  Since the inception of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, 50% of all Juvenile winners failed to even start in the Derby the following spring.  And those 50% that made it?  Very few were successful.  Juvenile winners are 1-for-13 in the Derby and only three of the thirteen to start have managed to hit the board (13-1-0-2).  

All of this doom and gloom is not to say that Uncle Mo is destined to repeat history - each case is separate and this colt is in no way bounded by what preceded him - but it's probably important to keep in mind that the odds are 50/50 that we'll even see him in the starting gate at the Derby and even slimmer odds that he'll win.  However, Uncle Mo has shown himself to be an exceptional colt during his brief career.  He may very well be so far above his peers that stamina, training and history are nothing but pebbles on his road to glory.


Table 1 - Breeders' Cup Juvenile Winners in the Kentucky Derby (1984 - 2009)

*Juvenile took place at Churchill Downs

Year

Winner

Derby

2010

Uncle Mo

?

2009

Vale of York

DNS

2008

Midshipman

DNS

2007

War Pass

DNS

2006

Street Sense*

1st

2005

Stevie Wonderboy

DNS

2004

Wilko

6th

2003

Action This Day

6th

2002

Vindication

DNS

2001

Johannesburg

8th

2000

Macho Uno*

DNS

1999

Anees

13th

1998

Answer Lively*

DNS

1997

Favorite Trick

8th

1996

Boston Harbor

DNS

1995

Unbridled's Song

5th

1994

Timber Country*

3rd

1993

Brocco

4th

1992

Gilded Time

DNS

1991

Arazi*

8th

1990

Fly So Free

5th

1989

Rhythm

DNS

1988

Is It True*

DNS

1987

Success Express

DNS

1986

Capote

16th

1985

Tasso

DNS

1984

Chief's Crown

3rd