Todd Pletcher arrived in Louisville this spring assured of avoiding the thorny question of when he would finally win the Kentucky Derby.
Super Saver's upset victory a year ago provided the answer. Now, though, the trainer faces a fresh batch of inquiries regarding Uncle Mo, one of his two contenders for next Saturday's race.
The colt, last year's 2-year-old champion, swept his first four career starts by a combined 27¼ lengths. He was threatening to turn the 137th running of the Derby into a coronation, but a stunning loss in the Wood Memorial on April 9 seems to have squelched that scenario.
Even moreso, it left the upcoming big race without a clear-cut favorite, meaning Derby wagering could produce huge odds and big smiles for anyone holding a winning ticket.
The loss also left Pletcher struggling for an explanation.
"Winning the Derby is awesome. It's great," he said. "It doesn't change your life in a lot of ways. The feed man still wants to get paid. Your wife still thinks you work too much. And if you get beat in the Wood Memorial everybody wants to know why."
Perhaps it was the gastrointestinal infection that was diagnosed after the race. Uncle Mo had led the field with a quarter-mile to go, but two horses passed him and he finished third by a length.
Pletcher said his horse is responding well to treatment, but owner Mike Repole still lists him as "50-50" for the Derby.
"As bad as I want to be in the Kentucky Derby, as bad as I want to win the Kentucky Derby, I will never sacrifice a horse's health for my ego," Repole said.
"Until May 7 comes around and he's at that gate, there's no guarantees in this game. And that doesn't just include Uncle Mo, but that also includes the other 19 starters."
Pletcher knows better than anyone what can happen on the way to the starting gate. Last year, he arrived with Derby favorite Eskendereya only to lose the horse six days before the race with a leg injury. He still won with long shot Super Saver, ending an 0-for-24 skid in America's greatest race.
In 2009, Derby favorite I Want Revenge was scratched on the morning of the race with an ankle injury.
This year's Triple Crown trail is littered with horses who were injured or didn't earn their way to Churchill Downs by failing to impress in some of the 30 prep races held since January.
Hopefuls including To Honor and Serve, Premier Pegasus and Jaycito were sidelined with assorted ailments. Soldat and Stay Thirsty, Pletcher's other horse, bombed in the Florida Derby, and favored Santiva finished ninth in the Blue Grass, although all are among the top 20 horses on the graded earnings list.
Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, will saddle Midnight Interlude, his most lightly regarded contender, yet the only one still standing. The Factor derailed the trainer's Derby hopes with a seventh-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, while Jaycito bowed out with a bruised front foot.
"You can have so many and everything can just go right down the toilet," Baffert said. "I've been down this road so many times. I just get them ready as best as I can and see what happens."
Rumors have circulated about Uncle Mo's health and whether he is sound enough to run 1¼ miles in the always crowded and contentious Derby — the first of thoroughbred racing's three Triple Crown events.
"With 20 horses, anything can happen," Baffert said.
Repole said he's been assured by the colt's veterinarian that Uncle Mo "is the most sound horse that Todd Pletcher has in the barn."
"And Todd has about 140 horses. So how can I not feel confident with that statement?" he said.
But Uncle Mo's upset loss squelched his hype, with many Derby handicappers quickly writing him off.
"People are coming down on him. I think we've set him off on a pedestal maybe too quickly," said Graham Motion, who trains Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner. "I see no reason why the horse couldn't come back and run a big race next time."
Indeed, Secretariat lost the 1973 Wood Memorial and rebounded to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont that year.
Dialed In, trained by two-time winner Nick Zito, has moved into the role of probable favorite almost by default. He used his late-running style to win the Florida Derby by a head over Shackleford, albeit in an unimpressively slow time.
"Frankly, I'd almost prefer him to be the second, third or fourth choice because I, like everybody else, worries about favorites," owner Robert LaPenta said. "He deserves the accolades and, hopefully, he'll prove that whoever gave him that spot was right on Derby day.
"It's going to come down to, like it always does, who's the best horse that day and who has the most luck that day," he said.
Midnight Interlude won the Santa Anita Derby by a nose, and will be trying to become the first Kentucky Derby winner since 1882 not to have raced as a 2-year-old.
"He went from zero to hero," Baffert said. "This horse is just getting better with every out."
The Derby field, expected to be full at 20 horses, will include Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch and Risen Star winner Mucho Macho Man, whose trainer, Kathy Ritvo, will try to become the first woman to win a Derby.
Rosie Napravnik is aiming for that honor, too, when she rides Louisiana Derby winner Pants on Fire. Like Mucho Macho Man, he has just two wins in eight races.
Back for another try is Calvin Borel, who picked up a mount on Sunland Derby winner Twice the Appeal. The jockey has won three of the last four Derbys, the latest aboard Super Saver.
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