05/02/2016 10:36AM

Derby colts offering redemption for Uncle Mo

Barbara D. Livingston
Uncle Mo (above) is the sire of Kentucky Derby contenders Nyquist, Outwork, and Mo Tom.

There are many paths to the Kentucky Derby. For students of bloodstock, some conjure déjà vu – while others are sweetly ironic.

Nyquist followed in young stallion Uncle Mo’s hoofprints by becoming an unbeaten juvenile champion.

Meanwhile, Outwork diverged from his sire’s path to avenge one of the stallion’s biggest career disappointments.

Outwork was bred and is owned by Mike Repole, who watched his pride and joy, Uncle Mo, suffer his first loss when third in the 2011 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, showing the first signs of a rare liver disorder that would eventually force him to scratch from the Kentucky Derby the day before the race.

But five years later, the massive contingent Repole brought to one of his home-city tracks to watch Uncle Mo’s son Outwork in the Wood Memorial – including his grandmother, for whom the colt’s dam is named – would not go home in disappointment. The colt set nearly suicidal fractions on a sloppy track, then held off the ambitiously placed maiden Trojan Nation to win the Wood by a game head.

“Forget the Derby, forget everything other than the fact it was a huge win for him in only his fourth lifetime start,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who also conditioned Uncle Mo. “To win a Grade 1 in only his fourth start is extra gratifying for our team because five years ago, Uncle Mo didn’t win the Wood Memorial. It’s sort of vindication in some ways for him, and to win it with a son of Uncle Mo is a pretty cool story.”

Uncle Mo, who won his three starts as a 2-year-old by a combined 23 1/4 lengths to earn a divisional Eclipse Award, entered stud at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Kentucky in 2012. Repole, who co-owns the stallion with Coolmore, supported the stallion with several mares, including Grade 1-placed Nonna Mia, whose name means “my grandmother” in Italian. The resulting foal, Outwork, became Uncle Mo’s first starter and first winner on April 23, 2015, at Keeneland, handily scoring by 2 1/4 lengths in a maiden special weight.

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“He’s stamping his babies – not only physically, but Uncle Mo was probably one of the smartest racehorses of a generation,” Repole said. “Todd would always talk about his mind. You only had to show him once. He picked up things quickly. Outwork is a really cool, collected customer. He doesn’t get fazed. He uses his energy where he’s supposed to use his energy.”

After that debut, “minor baby stuff” kept Outwork on the sidelines the rest of the year – but Uncle Mo didn’t slow down. Nyquist debuted in June and rolled through his 2-year-old season unbeaten in five starts, with three straight Grade 1 wins capped by the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and a championship. Uncle Mo’s other stakes winners on the season included Grade 1 winner Gomo – who, like Nyquist, is trained by Doug O’Neill.

“Outwork, the other Uncle Mo of Todd’s, looks very similar to Nyquist, his style,” O’Neill said. The Uncle Mos are “all so competitive. The ones I’ve had have good speed out of the gate, put themselves in good position. They’re very similar, too, with very little markings, they’re bays and well balanced, so he stamps them, that’s for sure.”

Uncle Mo led not only the freshman sire list but also the overall juvenile sire list in 2015, with a category-record bankroll of $3,632,314. He has put three horses in the Kentucky Derby, with Nyquist and Outwork joined by Grade 3 winner Mo Tom, and two in the Kentucky Oaks in Mokat and Mo d’Amour. The last stallion to have three Kentucky Derby starters in the same year was Cox’s Ridge – also with his first crop – in 1984.

“So many brilliant racehorses never really duplicated themselves in the stallion barn,” Repole said. “And then you have some who weren’t brilliant on the racetrack and became super-sires. I never thought [Uncle Mo would] be a better stallion than he was a racehorse, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he is.”

Outwork returned with a 4 1/4-length optional-claiming score in February at Tampa Bay Downs. In his first try at two turns in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, the colt set the early pace and dug in gamely to finish a length behind his Derby-bound stablemate Destin, setting him up for the Wood.

“It’s just an amazing dream,” said Repole, whose 89-year-old grandmother will be among the family in attendance at the Derby. “I always said Uncle Mo was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. His 2-year-old campaign could not have been scripted better. ... His 3-year-old campaign, obviously, was not the way you want it scripted. Tom Durkin, ‘The biggest upset since Secretariat,’ still rings in my head on a regular basis.

“To come back five years later to the day and to win the Wood by a nose – other than Uncle Mo’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – it was the most special win of my life,” Repole said. “It was a huge swing of emotions.”