11/03/2011 11:34AM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Uncle Mo seeks fairy-tale end to remarkable comeback

Barbara D. Livingston
Uncle Mo trains at Churchill Downs for a start in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When Todd Pletcher put Uncle Mo on a van bound for a farm in Lexington the morning of May 9, two days after the Kentucky Derby was run, the multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer didn’t know if he would see his champion colt again.

Three days earlier, Pletcher and the colt’s owner, Mike Repole, held a press conference to announce that Uncle Mo was scratched from the Kentucky Derby due to an illness, the exact nature and severity of which weren’t known. All that was known was that Uncle Mo had one elevated enzyme, a depressed appetite, loss of weight, and his hair coat was not right.

“Honestly, I had no idea what to expect,” Pletcher said in a recent interview. “It would have not shocked me if he had been diagnosed with cancer or something like that. That’s the way he looked; something was really wrong with him and we didn’t know what it was.”

It took almost a month for some of the most experienced equine veterinarians in Kentucky to diagnose Uncle Mo with the rare liver disease known as cholangiohepatitis, an inflammation of the liver and bile passages. The vets quickly determined that the illness was not life threatening, but thought it would likely end his career. After all, Uncle Mo was the undefeated champion 2-year-old colt of 2010 and it was deemed unlikely he could return to the level at which he had previously performed.

But Uncle Mo did make it back. On Saturday, six months after he was scratched from the Kentucky Derby, Uncle Mo is the morning-line favorite for North America’s richest horse race, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. And, honestly, very few people know what to expect when the gates open at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Dr. Bill Bernard, of Lexington Equine Surgery, was one of the three veterinarians who teamed up to diagnose and treat Uncle Mo. Bernard said for Uncle Mo to run as well as he did in losing the Grade 1 King’s Bishop by a nose to Caleb’s Posse and winning the Grade 2 Kelso against older horses by three lengths is “really amazing.”

“I’m not surprised that he lived, I thought he had a good chance to live, a good chance to recover,” Bernard said. “I could not have predicted how well he would have come back. I think that’s a remarkable thing how well he’s come back. I mean, how many horses that were as good as he was, had any kind of period of time where they weren’t able to race because they had a problem, are going to be able to come back and be at the top of their game?”

Bernard, Dr. Doug Byars, an internist who heads Byars Equine Advisory in Georgetown, Ky., and Dr. Tom Divers, professor of clinical services at Cornell University, were the three vets Pletcher and Repole summoned to help determine what was wrong with Uncle Mo.

According to Pletcher, the first signs that something was somewhat off kilter with Uncle Mo came in the week leading up to the Wood Memorial. When Uncle Mo arrived in New York, he was not eating as well as he had in Florida and his coat was a little dull. However, Uncle Mo trained well enough to give Pletcher confidence to go forward.

“I had some concerns that he wasn’t at his absolute best just from an appearance standpoint,” Pletcher said. “But watching him train, watching him gallop – if that’s all you did was just went out to the track watch him train and went home – you would never be concerned about anything. The rest of it you could tell he wasn’t quite himself.”

Uncle Mo, sent off the 1-9 favorite in the Wood, did not run like himself, setting a modest pace before giving way late and finishing third, 1 1/4 lengths behind Toby’s Corner.

Five days later, Uncle Mo began getting treatment for a gastrointestinal tract infection as well as stomach ulcers. The level of the enzyme known as gamma-glutamyltransferase (GGT) was abnormally high. Hoping treatment would help resolve these issues, Pletcher and Repole shipped Uncle Mo to Louisville with the intent of training him to run in the Derby.

On medication, Uncle Mo showed improvement. But after his last workout, six days before the Derby, he had to be taken off medication. That’s when things went awry.

“Uncle Mo, who was the morning-line second choice in the Derby, was showing signs of a depressed appetite, failing to finish even half of his feed Thursday morning, the day after entries and two days before the Derby,” Repole said.

It resulted in Repole and Pletcher announcing the horse had to be scratched from the Derby. Repole and Pletcher were still represented in the Derby with Stay Thirsty, who finished 12th.

Uncle Mo was shipped to WinStar Farm in Lexington. Pletcher had a good working relationship with WinStar, an outfit he had won the Kentucky Derby for in 2010 with Super Saver. By being there, Uncle Mo would be accessible to the Lexington-based veterinarians as well as be able to get turned out in a grassy paddock. And, if he made it back into training, WinStar had a track over which he could begin preparing for a comeback.

For Repole, the immediate plan was to find out what was wrong with Uncle Mo. His biggest fear was Uncle Mo could have cancer. Repole told the vets to spare no expense to find the problem.

“I don’t care how high the vet bills are,” Repole recalled saying. “If they’re not high enough, I’m going to complain. They could not have followed directions any more perfectly.”

Multiple tests were performed on Uncle Mo, including biopsies of the colon, stomach, the lymph nodes, and liver – all considered invasive tests – before the diagnosis of cholangiohepatitis was made. Repole announced the diagnosis in a June 3 press release.

“In the first week he was in Lexington, his GGT was improving,” Bernard said. “Then we made the diagnosis. As we made the diagnosis of cholangiohepatitis, we scoped his stomach looking for ulcers, we did nasal swabs and blood samples trying to isolate viruses. We did a lymph node biopsy to make sure there was no tumor, no cancer. As we did all these tests to make the diagnosis, he was improving.”

When Uncle Mo arrived at WinStar he was “lifeless,” according to Elliott Walden, the former trainer who is the president of the farm and who, in consultation with Pletcher, oversaw his daily routine. “We had him in a round pen that was 60 feet in diameter, and he was very lethargic. About two months later, before we shipped him out, he ran me out of the round pen.”

With a diagnosis in place, it was just a matter of how long it would take Uncle Mo to respond to treatment and being out of training.

According to Walden, Uncle Mo would eat four times a day in addition to spending five to six hours in a paddock, where he would have the opportunity to graze. Walden would weigh Uncle Mo on a daily basis and the horse was gaining weight all the time. He weighed 1,063 pounds when he arrived at WinStar and is more than 1,200 now, a gain of approximately 150 pounds.

“You could see the horse improve week by week,” said Walden, who shared his observations daily with Pletcher and Repole.

In addition to having contact with Walden, Repole and Pletcher had daily e-mail exchanges with veterinarians and a weekly conference call.

When it became apparent that Uncle Mo could be put back in training, Repole and Pletcher devised a schedule that, if everything went right, could get Uncle Mo to the Breeders’ Cup. They hoped to get two races into Uncle Mo before the Classic, starting with the Grade 1 King’s Bishop on Aug. 27.

Uncle Mo went into light training at WinStar in late June. He shipped to Pletcher’s Saratoga barn on July 11. He returned to the work tab on July 22 and breezed six times – almost every six days – leading up to the King’s Bishop. In the King’s Bishop, Uncle Mo rallied four wide in the stretch, shifted in toward the rail once he made the lead, and was run down in the final strides by Caleb’s Posse, who won by a nose. It turned out Uncle Moe lost a shoe in the race.

As terrific as Uncle Mo ran in his first start in 140 days, Repole said he felt disappointment. Not for himself, but for Uncle Mo, Pletcher, and all the people who put the time and effort to get the horse back to the races. Moments after the race, Repole mentioned retirement as a possibility for Uncle Mo.

“For him to get caught like that, it must have been he’s not the Uncle Mo we know,” Repole said. “The Uncle Mo we know would have pulled away by four lengths. I didn’t know he lost a shoe at the sixteenth pole.”

Uncle Mo showed no ill effects from the race. He was back in his feed tub as usual, his coat was a picture of health, and subsequent blood tests did not reveal unsafe GGT levels. He resumed his normal training routine.

Initially earmarked for the Pennsylvania Derby, a 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds at Parx Racing, Uncle Mo was rerouted to the Grade 2 Kelso at Belmont, a one-turn mile race against older horses. Uncle Mo demolished that field, running fast early fractions and drawing clear to a three-length victory over Jackson Bend while running mile in 1:33.82. He earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 118.

Though that would have been the ideal setup for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Uncle Mo was always being targeted for the Classic at 1 1/4 miles.

“If he won the Kelso by a half-length and Jackson Bend and Jersey Town closed the gap on him, he would have gone in the Dirt Mile,” Repole said. “If he won the Kelso in 1:33-and-change and annihilated the field, we were going to go to the Classic.”

Now, six months after he had two out of 20 horses entered for the Kentucky Derby, Repole has two of 12 horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Of the 20 horses entered in the Derby, only two – Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty – are entered in the Classic. Repole said he’s not as anxious as he was before last year’s Breeders’ Cup, when Uncle Mo won the Juvenile, or this year’s Derby.

“I’m not calling Todd at 5:30, I call him at 10,” Repole said. “I got a smile on my face. I’m enjoying the moment and having fun. No anxiousness. Maybe when they put them in the gate I’ll be anxious. This is about enjoying the moment, enjoying the ride, and thinking about how fortunate and lucky we are to be here from where we came from.”