04/07/2011 6:04PM

Final preps may not add clarity to Derby picture


With the Kentucky Derby near, racing fans will scrutinize Saturday’s Wood Memorial Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, and Illinois Derby, plus other major prep races next week, in an effort to divine what will happen on the first Saturday in May.

Yet it's likely the Derby picture will not be significantly clearer after these races than it is now. The reason is that Uncle Mo, the Kentucky Derby favorite and the reigning champion of his generation, will probably win the Wood Memorial so effortlessly that his performance will be difficult to assess. In so doing, he will finish a pre-Derby “campaign” without precedent. He will go to Churchill Downs after making only two starts as a 3-year-old, and in neither will he have faced anything resembling real competition.

Uncle Mo was absolutely brilliant as a 2-year-old, winning all three of his starts and running away with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 4 1/4 lengths, a performance suggesting that he could be one of the best young prospects in decades. When a reporter asked Todd Pletcher this week if his colt might be another Seattle Slew, the usually cautious trainer didn't try to lower expectations.

DERBY WATCH: Top 20 contenders with profiles and video replays

“When you're thinking about the greatest horses of all time,” Pletcher said, “he has the potential to be in that group.”

But brilliant 2-year-olds do not necessarily maintain their form on the road to the Derby and beyond. No champion 2-year-old colt from 1979 to 2008 was a champion at 3. The pretenders are usually sorted out in the prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby, if not in the Derby itself.

But how can a handicapper evaluate Uncle Mo’s 3-year-old form? Pletcher likes to campaign his horses with a gentle touch, and he had Uncle Mo make his first start of the year in a minor stakes at Gulfstream Park against four totally overmatched opponents. His victory (in a slow time) was little more than a glorified workout.

The $1 million Wood was supposed to be more of a challenge for him, except that no legitimate challengers are showing up at Aqueduct. Not one of his nine rivals has ever won a stakes race worth as much as $100,000. Four of them are ex-claiming horses. On his best form, Uncle Mo is a dozen lengths faster than the field. If he wins by six lengths with jockey John Velazquez applying a hammerlock, what does it prove?

At the Kentucky Derby, handicappers may be asking whether Uncle Mo has done enough as a 3-year-old to be sufficiently fit for the demanding race. But even if the champ is vulnerable, other colts are going to have to show in the prep races that they are worthy challengers. And so far this spring, most Derby aspirants have discredited themselves.

That was certainly the case in last Sunday’s rich Florida Derby, won by Dialed In. The highly regarded colts Soldat and To Honor and Serve, both ranked among the top six in the Daily Racing Form’s list of Kentucky Derby contenders, delivered weak performances (and verified that their earlier successes had been the result of easy trips). Dialed In rallied from last place to win over a 68-1 shot, but his narrow victory and his slow final time were hardly imposing. He has the right style for the Kentucky Derby, but maybe not enough raw ability.

In Saturday’s prep races, the main object of attention -- aside from Uncle Mo -- was supposed to have been Premier Pegasus, the solid favorite in the Santa Anita Derby on the strength of his seven-length victory in the San Felip stakes. But Thursday morning his assistant trainer, Maria Ayala, observed that the colt “had a little stumble” in his morning gallop and subsequently discovered a hairline fracture in his left foreleg, knocking him out of the race and the Kentucky Derby as well.

Jaycito, the second-place finisher in the San Felipe, will probably inherit the favorite’s role. But he -- like the winner -- benefited from a perfect setup in the San Felipe, rallying after three leaders had fought for the early lead at a suicidal pace. I like to bet against horses who have benefited from a perfect trip, and I will take a shot tomorrow with Comma at the Top, one of the embattled pacesetters in the San Felipe, who should get a much more comfortable trip in the Santa Anita Derby.

The Illinois Derby at Hawthorne has sometimes produced surprise contenders for the Kentucky Derby (such as the 2002 winner War Emblem), but this year’s weak field, headed by Watch Me Go, doesn’t appear to have any horses remotely worthy of running for the roses. The only other prep race that appears to be a crucial precursor of the Triple Crown series is next Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.

When The Factor won his maiden race on Dec. 26 by running six furlongs in phenomenal track-record time, even trainer Bob Baffert doubted that he could turn the tear-away front-runner into a Derby horse in four months.

“I’m not going to fry him to get to the Derby,” Baffert declared.

But the colt passed his subsequent tests, first winning a seven-furlong stakes, then winning at 1 1/16 miles in the Rebel Stakes, the prep for the Arkansas Derby. Questions still remain about his stamina as well as his ability to win if he doesn’t have the early lead. But if he does win the 1 1/8-mile test at Oaklawn Park, he will set the stage for a compelling Kentucky Derby showdown.

(c) 2011, The Washington Post