01/03/2011 3:01PM

More than ever, Derby focus is on Pletcher

Barbara D. Livingston
Uncle Mo won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November, clinching champion 2-year-old honors and stamping himself as the early Derby favorite for Todd Pletcher.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. – The seal is broken. Hardly anyone would be surprised to see Kentucky Derby winners start coming in clumps for Todd Pletcher now that he has finally won one. The breakthrough win by Super Saver in the 2010 Derby means some of the pressure has been taken off, Pletcher said.

“You can take a deep breath and let it happen,” he said.

Even more so than in years past, the focus on the next Kentucky Derby will be on the three barns that some 100 Pletcher-trained horses occupy at the Palm Meadows training center. Much of the focus will be on Uncle Mo, the unbeaten colt whose runaway triumph for Pletcher and owner Mike Repole in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile two months ago at Churchill Downs clinched a divisional championship and has made him one of the most exciting Derby prospects in years.

“Going into this year is a little different than it’s been for us before,” Pletcher said. “We’ve had some promising candidates in years past, but we’ve never gone into a year with the champion 2-year-old and winter-book favorite. Obviously, we’ve got a very nice horse that showed he loved that racetrack at Churchill. It should be exciting to have one like Uncle Mo.”

Since Palm Meadows opened in December 2002, five of the eight runnings of the Derby – and four of the last five – have been won by horses who wintered there: Funny Cide (2003), Barbaro (2006), Street Sense (2007), Big Brown (2008), and Super Saver. That success speaks volumes about the benefits of this quiet and spacious facility located just west of Boynton proper.

But Palm Meadows isn’t the only South Florida venue that Derby hopefuls are calling home this winter. As usual, other prospects also have taken up residence at Gulfstream Park, Payson Park, and Calder.

Still, it all starts with Pletcher, the future Hall of Famer who had been winless with 24 Derby starters before last year. Super Saver, one of four starters he had in the 2010 running, moved his Derby record to 1 for 28.

Uncle Mo has returned to light training at Palm Meadows and is scheduled to have two prep races before the 137th Derby is run May 7 at Churchill. Repole, a major supporter of New York racing, has settled on the April 9 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct as the targeted final prep, but Pletcher said, “We haven’t quite zeroed in on a specific race for his prep before that.

“I’d have to say the Tampa Bay Derby is high on the list because of the timing and the 1 1/16-mile distance,” he said, referring to the March 12 race at Tampa Bay Downs. “He’s probably about three weeks from having his first breeze back.”

Uncle Mo almost certainly will not make the nearly one-hour van ride south to Hallandale Beach to race at Gulfstream, which figures to take a little luster from the series of stakes that will culminate with the $1 million Florida Derby on April 3. The preceding races include the Holy Bull on Jan. 30 and the Hutcheson and Fountain of Youth on Feb. 26.

The Florida Derby is a key link in a new $5.5 million bonus series being offered this year by MI Developments, the owner of Gulfstream and Pimlico. One way to win the bonus is for a horse to win either the Holy Bull or Fountain of Youth, then both the Florida Derby and May 21 Preakness at Pimlico. A similarly configured bonus worth $2.2 million can be earned by a 3-year-old filly if she wins the May 20 Black Eyed Susan at Pimlico after sweeping the three major races in the division at Gulfstream.

The 2010 Florida Derby was run six weeks before the Kentucky Derby, but Gulfstream officials have moved it back to its more traditional spot five weeks out and will run it on a Sunday for the first time in race history.

Pletcher named at least three more colts with Derby potential: Brethren, a half-brother to Super Saver who is 2 for 2 and probably will have two Derby preps; Lauburu, an Unbridled’s Song colt being pointed to a Gulfstream allowance in late January; and Stay Thirsty, a Repole-owned colt whom Pletcher said will probably be ready to go around the same time as Uncle Mo but will be entered in different races.

Meanwhile, two of the top challengers to Uncle Mo also are in the region. Boys at Tosconova, the BC Juvenile runner-up, is at Gulfstream with Rick Dutrow. To Honor and Serve, the impressive winner of the Nashua and Remsen, is at Payson with Bill Mott. Boys at Tosconova, following four workouts already since the Breeders’ Cup, figures to be the favorite in the Holy Bull. To Honor and Serve shows no recorded workouts since capturing the Nov. 27 Remsen and should be a bit longer in making his seasonal debut.

Back at Palm Meadows, there are a host of 3-year-olds on the Derby radar.

Santiva, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, is thriving, trainer Eddie Kenneally said.

“We’re pointing for the Fountain of Youth, with, ideally, one race after that,” he said.

Rogue Romance, a distant third to Uncle Mo in the BC Juvenile, will have his first work this coming weekend, trainer Ken McPeek said, and could run next at the Fair Grounds or Gulfstream. McPeek said he also is expecting good things from Casper’s Touch, a Churchill maiden winner in November.

Nick Zito doesn’t have quite the numbers he has had in some years, but he said he is particularly high on Dialed In, an impressive maiden winner at Churchill.

Kelly Breen has Sweet Ducky atop his 3-year-old roster and said he intends to run him in the Jan. 22 Lecomte at Fair Grounds or in the Holy Bull.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed,” Breen said. “We’ve got a bunch starting to blossom, some before others. He’s one.”

Rusty Arnold has Depeche Chat and Cane Garden Bay on the fringes but points out Shadow Warrior, a Churchill maiden winner, as perhaps his best chance to make the Derby. Shadow Warrior, by A.P. Indy, will be one of the favorites Friday in a one-mile allowance at Gulfstream.

“I’ve got distance concerns for the other two, but not him,” Arnold said.

Wayne Catalano said he will have Major Gain, a close third in the KJC, “ready to go in one of those stakes pretty soon, but we haven’t made up our minds yet.”

Other notable 3-year-olds in the region include Black N Beauty, Cool Blue Red Hot, Decisive Moment, Gourmet Dinner, Leave of Absence, Luxury Appeal, Manicero, Mountain Town, Mucho Macho Man, Opening Move, Rustler Hustler, Shackleford, Sovereign Default, and Tiz Blessed.

In all, there are probably several dozen 3-year-olds in this region with a legitimate chance of developing into a Derby horse, and Gulfstream racing secretary Dan Bork has written the requisite number of maiden and first-level allowance races for that to happen.