JC / Railbird

Santa Anita Derby

The Shake Up

So, Uncle Mo lost. Considering the self-flagellation, told-yas, schadenfreude, and hearsay diagnoses that flooded the web immediately after the race, you would think the Wood Memorial was The Greatest Trouncing in the History of American Turf, and not a 1 1/4-length defeat by the 1-10 favorite to Toby’s Corner and Arthur’s Tale, the second- and third-favorite respectively. (For that matter, the horse bet fourth, Norman Asbjornson, finished fourth. Aside from an excess of Mo-thusiasm, bettors pretty much got the Wood right.)

So, Mo can lose. And look remarkably unexceptional while doing so. After leading the field through a half in :47.98 and three-quarters in 1:12.28, the previously undefeated colt displayed neither fight nor interest when jockey John Velazquez asked him to pick things up in the stretch, running the final eighth in :12.88. Toby’s Corner closed quickly, finishing in :11.97. “Oh, I’m surprised. But no longer is [Uncle Mo] such a dominant force, and it just opens up the entire picture [for the Derby],” said winning trainer Graham Motion.

It would seem so. Less than four weeks to the Derby, and only the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby are left now to make sense of this 3-year-old crowd, following Midnight Interlude’s upset in the Santa Anita Derby. By the margin of a head, he went from a maiden winner to G1 victor, giving trainer Bob Baffert a third Derby prospect. “The Kentucky Derby was once a horse race,” groused Bill Dwyre of yesterday’s results. “Now, it has become a crapshoot.”

In an era when conditioners seem to be competing on who can bring the freshest horse to the Derby, could it become anything but?

Trainer Todd Pletcher reported this morning, via text to Darren Rogers, that Uncle Mo will ship to Churchill Downs on April 18, which should help put to rest rumors that the former Derby favorite is out of contention. He’s expected to work twice before the Derby. How he trains will determine whether or not he starts, but it probably won’t answer the questions many were already asking about Uncle Mo’s light prep schedule. As Paul Moran writes:

Apparently, the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream, a combination publicity stunt and public workout, was insufficient to propel Uncle Mo to a Grade I, even in the absence of proven Grade I company, which beyond the bowed favorite was lacking in the Wood. Almost certainly, the Wood will leave the light-bodied Uncle Mo short of an effective effort at 10 furlongs in Kentucky on the first Saturday of May.

That’s got to be the concern of anyone who backs him going forward. “We’ll see if we can get him prepared to step up,” Pletcher said this morning. “It was not a typical Uncle Mo performance, but I do not feel like the mile and an eighth was an issue.” Maybe the Wood was just the gut check he needed.

Beyer speed figures: 94 for Toby’s Corner and 92 for Uncle Mo in the Wood; 95 for Midnight Interlude in the Santa Anita Derby; 93 for Joe Vann in the Illinois Derby; 87 for Lilacs and Lace in the Ashland Stakes.

6:00 PM Addendum: “If not Mo, who?” That is the question this weekend.

California Works

The Pamplemousse and Pioneerof the Nile worked for the Santa Anita Derby on Wednesday morning, and Horseplayerpro.com clocker Toby Turrell was there to catch both. First up, ‘Grapefruit, going six furlongs handily in 1:13:

“The Pamplemousse had regular pilot Alex Solis aboard for a key six-panel drill this morning at Santa Anita, and the signals were mixed for the big grey. On the plus side, Solis never really put him into gear most of the way. However, he still wanted to get a bit too aggressive early going (:47.20 to the top of the lane) en route to a 1:13-flat clocking — with an even more pedestrian gallop out time of 127.60.

“This drill was a bit backwards on the watch, and when Solis ‘clucked’ to the horse inside the eighth-pole, The Pamplemousse did not give much response visually over a pretty deep surface. The Pro-Ride was renovated on Monday afternoon as part of the track’s normal maintenance.

“It certainly appears at this stage that the connections are just going to have to let The Pamplemousse sail on the lead and hope for the best.”

That fits with how the Pamplemousse won the Sham and San Rafael; he won’t get away so easily in the Santa Anita Derby. The lack of response Turrell observed can be seen in this video posted by Larry Zap Eye, who also followed the tired-seeming and hard-blowing Pamplemousse back to the barn after his work. The same video has a few seconds of Pioneerof the Nile, moving smoothly over the Pro-Ride. According to Turrell:

“With just over a week to go until the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Bob Baffert wanted a stiff drill out of his charge and he got it with Joe Steiner piloting Pioneer Of The Nile to a co-bullet of 1:11.40 for six panels. The splits of this drill were :35.60 and 59-flat, then a final furlong of :12.40 past the wire, working down to the clubhouse turn. Baffert told me that he was extremely happy with the colt and it went according to schedule. There is no doubt he will get a lot out of this drill, fitness-wise, over a deeply renovated surface that played a bit on the heavy side this morning.

“Anytime a 3-year-old can go the last three-eighths in :35.40 with a real swift final clocking, you have to deem him on course to go the ultimate distance of a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May. I personally believe that this colt’s most impressive drills are when he shows his class in team drills, where he usually blows by his stablemate with ease through the last quarter-mile. Today, working solo, Pioneerof The Nile was professional, indeed, responding to the urging from his regular exercise rider from top of the lane to the clubhouse turn without having a target in front of him to keep him aggressive.”

Baffert likes bullets, so it’s no news that Pioneerof the Nile earned one for his stellar final time, but doing the last three-eighths in :35.40 is attention grabbing coming out of any barn.