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On horse racing

Early Derby favorites say uncle

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / April 23, 2011

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In the often rocky and surprising journey through a Triple Crown season, we generally have a favorite for the Kentucky Derby by now. Nothing certain, mind you, since projecting virtually untested 3-year-olds is risky business indeed.

You usually can pick up a clue coming out of the prep races in Florida, Arkansas, New York, Louisiana, and California. But this year was going to be different. There were murmurs of a true contender for the Triple Crown — which, of course, hasn’t been won since Affirmed swept through the spring in 1978.

Uncle Mo was the horse with the big mo (i.e. momentum), coming out of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as an undefeated 2-year-old.

Horse racing fans were using the names Secretariat and Barbaro in the same sentence as Uncle Mo, even though Uncle Mo’s trainer Todd Pletcher seemed reluctant to test his horse too early or too often.

After Uncle Mo breezed through a nondescript race against mediocre competition at Gulfstream Park in March, Pletcher said he would run him only once more, at the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct April 9 against what was considered a weak field. Uncle Mo went off at 1-10 in what appeared to be only an extended workout.

Uncle Mo worked out all right. He finished third as a well-beaten favorite. Whoops.

Surely there was a reason for this performance. It couldn’t be as simple as “maybe this horse didn’t have the distance factor in his pedigree,’’ with the Wood’s 1 1/8-mile route a stumbling block. That would make the Derby’s 1 1/4 miles tougher and the Belmont’s 1 1/2 even more so.

No, there was a reason: Uncle Mo was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal infection.

Now there were more doubters. And not just with Uncle Mo. Look at what happened in the Arkansas Derby, in the Florida Derby, in the Santa Anita Derby, all regarded as testing grounds for Derby contenders. Long shots paying $52.40, $40.20, and $29.80 all came up with victories.

In nine Derby prep races dating to March 19, when The Factor won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, not a favorite has won.

The Factor was supposed to take the role of Uncle Mo. But last week in the Arkansas Derby, The Factor was no factor.

We are two weeks away from Derby Day, and the field has the feel of a group of first-time starters coming out for an allowance race at Saratoga in early August.

If you want a favorite, Florida Derby winner Dialed In is probably the choice, but the support for the Nick Zito horse is lukewarm, with as many questions as answers.

And what about the newcomers, such as Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch, or Nehro, who came up with closing charges in both the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby, falling short each time. Will the extra distance in the Derby be the deciding factor?

There is also the ongoing question about Uncle Mo. Super horse to super flop? It has happened before.

Pletcher was noncommittal about whether Uncle Mo will even be in the starting gate for the Derby. When Uncle Mo arrived at Barn 34 at Churchill Downs this week, Pletcher said he had not made a decision as his horse recovers from his illness.

What this all means is obvious: On the fourth Saturday in April, no one knows anything about the first Saturday in May.

Everyone has a theory, including one suggested by longtime racing writer Paul Moran. A friend of Moran’s told him he had already picked his Derby winner. When Moran asked who, his friend said whichever horse is ridden by Calvin Borel, who has ridden three of the last four Derby winners.

Elite Alex is the horse Borel would mount, but right now, it doesn’t appear that Elite Alex will have enough earnings to qualify, which leaves Borel as a free agent.

Among Borel’s possibilities, two horses loom: Nehro and Comma to the Top, both of whom are ridden on a regular basis by Corey Nakatani. He, obviously, cannot ride both in the Derby, which leaves Borel as a possibility.

So there it is. Nehro or Comma to the Top, with Calvin Borel, as your Derby winner.

It’s a lock. Isn’t it?

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.