Updated on 04/13/2011 6:17PM

Kentucky Derby-wise, you've got to know your limitations


In trying to salve the wound of Uncle Mo’s disappointing performance in the Wood Memorial, the name of Secretariat was invoked more than once, as in, “Secretariat finished third in the Wood, too.”

Yes he did. And so did Omaha, Capot, High Gun, Roman Brother, Bold Lad, Genuine Risk, and Groovy, as long as we’re dropping names, along with Doctor Wilson, Hoodoo, Ferd, Our Dad, Aztec Red, Candy Cone, Romano Gucci and Smokin Mel, in case we’re not.

The point being, if you’re going to grasp at straws, they might as well be strong enough to stir the drink. Secretariat’s third in the 1973 Wood, anomaly that it was, got explained away later on by the irritating presence of an abscess inside Big Red’s upper lip. Without an abscess, Secretariat won the Triple Crown and defeated the best older horses in North America on both dirt and grass. This should provide some idea of just how painful it must have been for him to lose going nine furlongs to Angle Light and Sham. News flash – it wasn’t the pace.

Until Todd Pletcher puts Uncle Mo back under the training gun, the only thing certain is that the colt was suffering from media overload and parimutuel madness. Neither condition was his fault, unless you count as contributing factors an untroubled career of four races, including a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile blowout. At the end of the day, Uncle Mo was guilty of being nothing more than an undefeated 2-year-old champion who lived and worked in New York.

Since the horse can’t talk – although he did bleed a little from a grabbed quarter – that leaves the rest of us faced with the same questions that raises its head around this time of year every year: Did the slow-starters of the generation catch up to the best of last year’s 2-year-olds, and do the pedigrees that serve 2-year-olds hold up under classic stress?

The Wood and the Santa Anita Derby, run two hours apart, offered races of perfect analytical balance. In 2010 the best 2-year-old in the East was Uncle Mo, while his counterpart out West was Comma to the Top. Uncle Mo took the traditional superstar route of breaking his maiden, winning the Champagne at Belmont and then the Breeders’ Cup, while Comma to the Top broke his maiden for a tag, lost a few, then finished in a flurry of three stakes wins, topped by the CashCall Futurity on a synthetic surface in a nasty storm. If nothing, it was a creative campaign.

Fast-forward to the first Saturday in April, and their destinies had clearly diverged. Uncle Mo was 1-to-the national debt in the Wood off the fumes of 2010 and a whimsical little prep in Florida. Comma to the Top was 8-1 in the Santa Anita Derby after two forgettable fourths in 2011. They both wear white bridles and share a paternal heritage, Uncle Mo being by Indian Charlie and Comma to the Top a son of Indian Charlie’s son, Bwana Charlie.

Also, they both went for the lead, although in markedly different spirit. Uncle Mo, apparently trained with the idea that front-runners can’t win the Kentucky Derby, could have rated behind another horse and Pletcher would have been happy, but none appeared. Out West, Comma to the Top was destined for the lead from the draw of the race, come hell or high water, according to trainer Peter Miller, and that’s where he was.

“Some horses can beat them late in the race and some horses can beat them early,” Miller said. “You can run them off their feet, and they can get tired chasing you. Then it becomes a battle of attrition that last quarter-mile.”

Miller was describing, to a T, the 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, whose dizzying early speed broke the hearts of more than one pursuer during her unbeaten 3-year-old campaign.

“Just because you go slow early doesn’t mean you’ll go that much faster late,” Miller said. “Comma to the Top’s better off going a half in 47 and two than he is going 48 and two under a choke-hold. And he’s got the added advantage of having a little quarter-mile kick he can use at the three-eighths to put some distance between him and whatever’s behind him.”

In the Santa Anita Derby it almost worked. It was only in the final yards that Comma to the Top surrendered to the steadily grinding Midnight Interlude.

The fractions of the Wood and the Santa Anita Derby are revealing, though not to be directly compared, since the surfaces are of different dirt composition and the track configurations vary.

Uncle Mo, carrying 123 pounds, ran successive quarters in 23.49, 24.49, 24.30 and 24.98 seconds before his final-furlong surrender, at the end of which he was beaten a neck and a length. The last furlong of the Wood was clocked in 12 seconds flat.

At Santa Anita, under 122, Comma to the Top sprinted to the lead past the stands the first time in 22.81 seconds for the first quarter. Corey Nakatani got him to relax through a 24.52 second quarter, most of it on the turn, then followed with quarters of 24.20 and 24.52 seconds. The final eighth of the Santa Anita Derby was run in 12.61, and you can pretty much give that to the pacesetter, since Comma to the Top was beaten just a head.

“It was a tough beat,” Miller said a few days later. “It literally made me sick – no really, I came down with something the next day.”

It wasn’t Derby fever, but the symptoms were similar. Miller and the owners of Comma to the Top – Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Kevin Tsujihara – have backed away from their unequivocal decision not to go to the Kentucky Derby and are now in a “wait and see” holding pattern. It’s a long queue.

“When it comes to the Derby distance, I think it comes down to a horse who really wants it and a horse who’ll maybe get it,” Miller said. “Other than Dialed In, I don’t really see a 3-year-old out there right now that really wants a mile and a quarter.”