Kentucky Derby a big puzzle

Upsets in preps, Uncle Mo's woes, cloud picture for bettors

May 01, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, Tribune newspapers

Some years, a majestic 3-year-old thoroughbred will trot onto the scene and immediately emerge as a favorite in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby. He'll look great in workouts, dominate the prep races and tantalize the sport, injecting hope into the elusive dream of seeing a horse win a Triple Crown.

This is not one of those years.

In fact, if you have $2 and a hunch, you might have just as good a shot as the experts at picking a winner in the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby, even if you barely know the difference between a furlong, a furlough and a fur coat.

Although a clearer picture could emerge from final workouts this week in Louisville, right now the Run for the Roses is a guessing game, thanks to a quirky prep season in which the early favorites disappointed.

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on before post time Saturday.

1. What's up with Uncle Mo?

Earlier this year, the Todd Pletcher-trained colt looked as if he would come into the Derby as a clear favorite. After he went undefeated as a 2-year-old, including a dominant victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, there were whispers that Uncle Mo might have the best shot in years at winning the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Even Pletcher, normally as excitable as a Secret Service agent, had trouble muzzling his enthusiasm, saying he wouldn't trade horses with anyone.

But Uncle Mo finished a shocking third in his final prep race, the Wood Memorial, and then word came he was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal infection. Now it's not even certain he'll run in the Derby. Pletcher said he's responding well to antibiotics, but it's certainly a bummer for a horse that appeared to have big-time talent.

"Uncle Mo's only lost one race in his life," owner Mike Repole said. "To me, the Wood was a blessing. This horse is so good, and he fools you by training so well, that if he would have won the Wood by four lengths, we may not have known that there was an issue with him."

2. If Uncle Mo isn't 100 percent, who emerges in his place?

At this point, it's almost like throwing darts in the dark. All six major prep races were upsets, and several were won by a nose or a head at the wire.

Handicappers seem to like Nehro, but 25-1 shot Archarcharch beat him in the Arkansas Derby. Nick Zito's Dialed In, who could go into Derby week with the best odds, was beaten in the Florida Derby by Shackleford, a 68-1 prayer. Mucho Macho Man, a 5-2 favorite in the Louisiana Derby, finished third and might have a lingering foot injury.

Will that open the door for Midnight Interlude, who was lightly regarded before he won the Santa Anita Derby because he has more endurance than speed? His trainer, Bob Baffert, is itching to catch his friend and rival D. Wayne Lukas with a fourth Derby win.

3. Can Calvin Borel continue to work his magic at Churchill Downs?

No jockey has won three consecutive Derbys, but it would be foolish to write off Borel. He almost didn't have a mount in this year's field when his best shot, Elite Alex, failed to secure enough graded stakes earnings. Now he'll ride Twice the Appeal, a long-shot winner of the Sunland Derby.

Borel has been in this position before. Two years ago, he snagged a last-minute ride aboard Mine That Bird, weaved his way through traffic and rode the 60-1 shot to victory. Last year, he followed it up with a victory in the mud on Super Saver. When you throw in his 2007 Kentucky Derby win aboard Street Sense and his 2009 Preakness victory on Rachael Alexandra, no jockey has been as successful in recent years in big races.

4. A run for the Rosie?

Rosie Napravnik will ride Pants on Fire in the Derby. She was the first female jockey to win a riding title at a Fair Grounds meet, and in March she won a $1 million race there.

Napravnik, 23, has battled terrible injuries in her brief career, including a spinal compression and a badly broken leg and wrist, but she has a chance to become the first female jockey to win a Kentucky Derby.

5. Are Toby's Corner and Graham Motion for real?

When Toby's Corner upset Uncle Mo at the Wood, it thrust the horse — and his Maryland-based trainer, Graham Motion — into the spotlight.

The 46-year-old Englishman has carved out a successful career away from the racing hotbeds of New York, Kentucky and California.

Motion has had two Derby starters in Chillito (11th in 1998) and Adriano (19th in 2008), but this year he might have a real contender in Toby's Corner, as well as another starter in Animal Kingdom.

Motion likes that he might be off everyone's radar.

"The night of the Wood, he was back in his own stall and he was very comfortable there," Motion said. "It's enabled me to keep him on a routine that I would have normally done without getting too caught up in the hype."

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