09/27/2011 2:55PM

Belmont Park: Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty may be on path to showdown in Breeders' Cup Classic

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Stay Thirsty could square off with his stablemate Uncle Mo in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

ELMONT, N.Y. – For as long as they’ve been together, Stay Thirsty has always walked in the shadow of his stablemate Uncle Mo. By virtue of victories in the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga, Stay Thirsty has certainly done his best to escape.

Heading into this weekend’s Super Saturday card at Belmont Park, Stay Thirsty has the opportunity to put more distance between himself and his champion stablemate – at least as far as 3-year-old divisional honors is concerned – when he runs in the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, one of six graded stakes to be run at Belmont Park. Earlier in the day, Uncle Mo will attempt to get into the conversation when he takes on Grade 1 winners Jersey Town and Jackson Bend in the Grade 2, $200,000 Kelso Handicap.

Good performances by both could have them end up in the same starting gate Nov. 5 for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

While most would agree that at their best, Uncle Mo is the superior horse, based on accomplishments this year, Stay Thirsty has simply done more. After finishing second in the Belmont Stakes, Stay Thirsty has flourished this summer with a convincing victory in the Jim Dandy and a gritty victory in the Travers. He began the year with a score in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about what you accomplish on the racetrack,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains both colts “Uncle Mo was as talented a 2-year-old as we’ve ever seen, and his races so far [this year] are an indication that he could show that again. But at the same time, Stay Thirsty has now done it two races in a row and if he is able to pull off this next one or two, I don’t think anyone would be apologetic about him being a champion. These division races, everyone wants to crown a little prematurely. We still got two important races to run. I’d love them both to go to the Breeders’ Cup with a chance at it.”

“It’s going to be tough watching them race against each other,” said Mike Repole, who owns both colts. “It’s almost as if you had two kids on opposing teams, you want to root for both of them. You’ll be happy for the sibling that wins and you’ll feel bad for the one that doesn’t.”

Whether Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty both make it to Churchill for the Breeders’ Cup Classic remains to be seen. It was only five months ago when both were headed to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill, but only Stay Thirsty made it to the gate.

Uncle Mo, last year’s 2-year-old champion, got derailed from the Triple Crown trail by what was eventually diagnosed as cholangiohepatitis, a rare liver disorder that forced him to scratch from the Kentucky Derby and forced him to spend two months on the farm. His future was uncertain.

“It would not have shocked me if he had been diagnosed with cancer or something like that,” Pletcher said. “That’s the way he looked. Something was really wrong with him, and we didn’t know what it was.”

While doctors treated him at WinStar Farm and Uncle Mo responded and began to put on weight, Stay Thirsty was developing into the type of horse Pletcher and Repole were hoping for when they bought him for $500,000 at the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old in training sale in Florida. His body type and pedigree suggested he’d get better as he got older and the distances got longer.

That Stay Thirsty won a sprint at 2 and finished second in the Hopeful was gravy. That he won the Gotham off the layoff was impressive, though he followed that up with clunkers in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. Pletcher believes he lost the Florida Derby in the paddock, when the horse got very hot. Stay Thirsty was one of many horses who didn’t run well in the Kentucky Derby.

And while the Kentucky Derby has taken its toll on more than a few horses, it certainly didn’t zap Stay Thirsty. In fact, just the opposite was true as the son of Bernardini started training better after the Derby.

“You could see it particularly in his breezes, the way he was finishing his breezes and the way he was galloping out afterwards,” Pletcher said. “He was a better horse after the Derby than he was before, which is rare. It seems like a lot of them take the Derby hard, it takes them a while to bounce back. He took it really well and thrived on it and got better afterward.”

While the Jim Dandy was visually impressive and came up a better race from a speed-figure standpoint, Stay Thirsty’s performance in the Travers was superb. He stumbled at the start and showed more speed than expected early and had to be yanked off the pace by Javier Castellano. He was between horses for most of the trip before wresting the lead from Shackleford at the five-sixteenths pole. Yet, he still had enough stamina to keep going and win by 1 1-/ lengths over Rattlesnake Bridge.

“The Jim Dandy was arguably his best performance, his most impressive performance if you analyze the figures and the time and the margin of victory,” Pletcher said. “The Travers to me was his gutsiest and most courageous effort.”

It took that type of effort for Stay Thirsty to escape Uncle Mo’s shadow. Just 30 minutes earlier, Uncle Mo had come within a nose of Caleb’s Posse in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop in his first race since the Wood Memorial on April 9, where he finished third. Uncle Mo had come back into Pletcher’s care on July 11 and everything went according to script leading up to the King’s Bishop.

According to Pletcher, both horses have continued to thrive since their Aug. 27 races. Uncle Mo may have the more difficult assignment in the Kelso as he takes on horses in solid form such as Jackson Bend and Jersey Town, both Grade 1 winners. Stay Thirsty’s task in the Gold Cup was made easier by the defection of Tizway. His toughest opponent figures to be Suburban winner Flat Out.

Pletcher chose to run Uncle Mo in the Kelso over last weekend’s Pennsylvania Derby because he liked the one-turn mile at Belmont over the two turns and 1 1/8 miles at Parx Racing. Last year, Uncle Mo equaled Seattle Slew’s time [1:34 2/5] for the fastest Champagne of 80 editions run at the one-mile distance.

“I don’t think we’re running in an easier race, we just felt like it was the right race for him at this time,” Pletcher said. “We need to see him run well and come back healthy; that’s really it.”

And provided Stay Thirsty does the same, it could be the ultimate stablemate showdown in Louisville in the Classic.

“Running the two of them together is not something I look forward to doing, but I think we’re talking about the two best 3-year-olds in the crop,” Pletcher said.