08/25/2011 1:29PM

Most riveting 3-year-old on Travers card remains Uncle Mo

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Barbara D. Livingston
Uncle Mo's bandwagon emptied after the Wood Memorial, but it's revisionist history to deny he has talent.

A year ago, two of owner Mike Repole’s 2-year-olds scored lengthy maiden victories at Saratoga. Stay Thirsty won by 5 1/2 lengths on Aug. 14, and two weeks later on the Travers undercard, a first-time stater named Uncle Mo won by 14 1/4 lengths.

Exactly one year later, Repole’s colts are exactly where he could have only dreamed that his two maiden winners would be 12 months hence, the favorites in the two Grade 1 stakes races for 3-year-olds on the biggest day of the Saratoga meeting. For Repole, who stands up loudly and proudly for New York racing and will be Saratoga’s leading owner again this year, the dream has come true – but with one huge, topsy-turvy difference.

Uncle Mo, who went on to become the 2-year-old champion and fueled Triple Crown dreams, is on the Travers undercard again, trying to resurrect his career while returning in the $250,000 King’s Bishop. It’s Stay Thirsty who is in the main event, as the 5-2 morning-line favorite to win the $1 million Travers and assume the leadership of the nation’s 3-year-olds.

The story of 3-year-old successes who began the year as the second-stringer in their own stable is an old one. It played out several times for Woody Stephens, most notably with Devil’s Bag and Swale, and last year Todd Pletcher won his first Derby with Super Saver just two weeks after the far more talented Eskendereya was sidelined. Even before Pletcher’s current situation with Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo, it had been a recurring theme this year. Toby’s Corner, not Animal Kingdom, was Graham Motion’s main Derby hope in April, and Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice began the spring well behind Pants On Fire in Kelly Breen’s barn.

As a result, there’s now some revisionist thinking surrounding the two Travers Day favorites. Some pundits have suggested that maybe Stay Thirsty was really the better colt all along, and was unfairly slighted and overshadowed by his flashier and perhaps overhyped stablemate. The bandwagon for Uncle Mo, who won his first four starts as if he might be the next Seattle Slew, came to a crashing halt when he coughed up the lead as the 1-20 favorite in the Wood Memorial and ran a tiring third. He continued to train for the Kentucky Derby but not particularly well, and Repole finally and reluctantly took him out of training two days before the race.

Stay Thirsty was clearly no match for Uncle Mo last fall, finishing 14 1/2 lengths behind him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He won the Gotham in his 3-year-old debut, but then was trounced in the Florida Derby and ran 12th behind Animal Kingdom in Kentucky. Then the light seemed to go on: Dismissed at 16-1 in the Belmont, Stay Thirsty stayed the trip and ran a close second in the slop to Ruler On Ice. He followed that up with a breakthrough performance winning the Jim Dandy here July 30 by four lengths, earning a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 106. That performance may make him the Travers favorite over the winners of the Preakness (Shackleford), Belmont (Ruler On Ice) and Haskell (Coil).

With Animal Kingdom sidelined for the year, a showdown among the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Jim Dandy winners is as good as a Travers can get, and if one of those four favorites wins the Travers he can rightfully be called the leader of the 3-year-olds heading into the fall. In a year marked by upsets – a Triple Crown of 20-1, 12-1, and 24-1 winners and nine different winners of the nine Grade 1 stakes for 3-year-old males – it’s tempting to pick against all four, but I can’t come up with a plausible longshot. Malibu Glow and Raison d’Etat hold some promise down the road but have not been battle-tested against good horses yet.

It’s a fine summit meeting for pro-tem leadership of the division, but I won’t be the only one who will be just as intrigued, if not more so, to see what happens one race earlier in the King’s Bishop. Pletcher and Repole say that Uncle Mo is training like a champion again, and I don’t think we’ve seen a performance from any 3-year-old this year that was truly exceptional in the way that Uncle Mo’s 2-year-old triumphs were. Maybe he will never be that good again, and maybe he was never cut out to go classic distances, but one bad race in the Wood – and the possibility it really was the result of a subsequently-diagnosed liver illness – isn’t enough to say he’s done, much less that his 2-year-old dazzlers were mirages.

He’s a shaky 9-5 on the morning line for the King’s Bishop but I suspect he will be more like even money. He hasn’t won an important race since last November, but he’s still the most popular 3-year-old running at Saratoga on Saturday – and still eligible to be the best.