Uncle Mo returns in Travers Stakes

Horse recovered from liver disease

By Richard Rosenblatt
Associated Press / August 25, 2011

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The real drama Saturday will unfold about 30 minutes before the Travers Stakes.

That’s when Uncle Mo returns to the races for the first time since being sidelined with a life-threatening liver disease more than four months ago.

The early Kentucky Derby favorite before his illness, Uncle Mo was made the 9-5 favorite in the $250,000 King’s Bishop, a 7-furlong Grade 1 race against seven rivals, among them the highly regarded sprinter Flashpoint.

And even if the Travers at Saratoga Race Course features Preakness winner Shackleford, Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice, Haskell winner Coil and 5-2 favorite Stay Thirsty, it will still be the Uncle Mo show.

“For him to be coming back is amazing,’’ says owner Mike Repole, who owns Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty. “And to think, a short time ago we were not only worried about whether he’d race again, but whether he’d survive.’’

Uncle Mo’s comeback arrives almost a year to the day since his sensational debut, a dazzling 14 1/4-length romp at the Spa that all but upstaged Afleet Express’s win in the Travers a few races later.

None of the drama has been lost on Todd Pletcher, who trains both morning-line favorites for Repole.

“It’s pretty rare that you’re going to have two 3-year-olds running in races where potentially the $1 million, Grade 1 focal race of the entire meet in some ways is going to be less popular than the one right before it,’’ said Pletcher. “He’s training really well. We’re really pleased with everything that’s happened since we’ve come up here [in July]. We’ve gotten to this point exactly like we hoped we could have.’’

That would be six timed workouts, including a final 5-furlong breeze in 59.90 seconds Sunday.

Travers Day can’t come soon enough for Repole, a fast-talking 42-year-old New Yorker who made millions selling Glaceau, the maker of Vitaminwater and Smartwater, to Coca Cola for $4.1 billion in 2007.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is probably a 19,’’ he said yesterday in the paddock at the Travers’ post position draw. “Growing up, I dreamed about being in situations like this. To think I was going to have the favorite in the King’s Bishop and the favorite in the Travers in the same year on the same card . . . that’s beyond bigger. The excitement level is going to be 100.’’

Uncle Mo won his first three races, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and was voted 2-year-old champion. After winning his first start this year, the bay colt finished an unexpected third in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9 as the 1-10 favorite.

He was examined by several veterinarians over several weeks before being diagnosed with cholangiohepatitis - a severe inflammation of the bile passages and adjacent liver, which sporadically causes hepatic failure in horses and ruminants,’’ according to the Merck Veterinary Manual.

Dr. Bill Barnard of Lexington Equine Surgery & Sports Medicine, was among those who treated Uncle Mo. He said the disease is “unusual’’ and that he’s seen maybe a “couple of dozen’’ in his career.

“I’d say 50 percent of the cases recover, but to return to the level Uncle Mo’s returned to I’d say maybe 10 percent,’’ said the 58-year old Barnard.

Uncle Mo spent two months at WinStar Farm in Kentucky gaining back his energy and the nearly 150 pounds he lost due to the disease.

Nonetheless, Pletcher is looking for Uncle Mo and jockey John Velazquez to show up in the winner’s circle.

“My expectations will be extremely high and I’m sure my anxiety level will be extremely high,’’ he said. “We’re really excited about having him back.’’