08/29/2011 1:58PM

Stay Thirsty finally escapes Uncle Mo's shadow


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – If the colt Stay Thirsty were capable of human emotions, his feelings after winning the $1 million Travers Stakes would be more complex than straightforward elation. He might feel a smug satisfaction that his great triumph had come on the afternoon that his illustrious stablemate Uncle Mo had lost a lesser race at Saratoga. And he might think that this outcome helped atone for a series of insults.

The two 3-year-olds are both members of Todd Pletcher’s powerful stable, and both carry the silks of owner Mike Repole. Both showed talent from the start of their careers, but Uncle Mo’s sheer brilliance overshadowed his stablemate. Uncle Mo was hailed, justifiably, as one of the best 2-year-old champions and Kentucky Derby prospects in years until a mystery illness knocked him out of the Triple Crown and put his entire future in jeopardy. As he made his long awaited return to the races in the King’s Bishop Stakes on Saturday, he was the most talked-about Thoroughbred at Saratoga – even though Stay Thirsty was the morning-line favorite for the 142nd running of the Travers, the track’s most celebrated race.

Uncle Mo led until the final stride of his seven-furlong race, when the stretch-running Caleb’s Posse beat him by a nose. It was a good effort, an encouraging effort, but Uncle Mo isn’t back to his great form – not yet. However, the performance by Stay Thirsty was unambiguous. Against a field that included the winners of the Preakness, Belmont and Haskell stakes, he scored a victory that may make him the 3-year-old champion of 2011. His effort was stronger than his 1 1/4-length margin over longshot Rattlesnake Bridge suggested.

When Uncle Mo won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall with a breathtaking performance, while Stay Thirsty finished a distant fifth, there appeared to be little doubt about their respective merits. If Stay Thirsty had been in another barn, another trainer might nevertheless have focused his energies on getting the well-bred colt to the Triple Crown series. But in the Pletcher operation, Stay Thirsty was relegated to second-string status. When the stable went to Florida this winter, the trainer used Stay Thirsty as a workmate for Uncle Mo – with the workouts designed to advance Uncle Mo’s development. Stay Thirsty was an afterthought.

Pletcher sent Stay Thirsty to New York, where he won a moderate stakes race that was intended to be a prep for the Wood Memorial Stakes. But then the trainer altered his plans, decided to run Uncle Mo in the Wood, and brought Stay Thirsty back to the hot south to run in the Florida Derby – where he was trounced.

Uncle Mo suffered the first loss of his career in the Wood, trained poorly thereafter and forced Pletcher and Repole to abandon their Triple Crown hopes. Their champion was listless and losing weight, and it would be weeks before a battery of veterinarians would discover that he was suffering from a rare liver ailment called cholangiohepatitis. The champ’s defection left an ill-prepared Stay Thirsty as the stable’s lone hope in the Kentucky Derby, but horses don’t get fit for America’s toughest race by being treated like an afterthought. Stay Thirsty finished 12th and Repole took it hard.

“I looked like an idiot in the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “People were coming up to me and saying, ‘I lost so much money on that horse.’ ” By this point Stay Thirsty’s form looked so bad that few people considered him a potentially formidable 3-year-old.

But out of the shadow of Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty became a new horse. Undoubtedly, the fact that Pletcher was now focusing on him made a big difference. The colt finished second in the Belmont Stakes. He came to Saratoga and won the Jim Dandy Stakes by four lengths, earning an excellent speed figure. In the Travers, he conclusively proved his grit.

The only front-runner in the field was the Preakness winner Shackleford, and jockey Javier Castellano knew he couldn’t let that rival steal away to an early lead. So he asked Stay Thirsty to outrun Shackleford to the first turn, dropped back to chase the speedster along the backstretch, then moved abreast of him as they entered the final turn.

Shackleford has been a tough battler in this season’s 3-year-olds races, but now he surrendered and left Stay Thirsty with the lead. The stretch-runners started making their moves, but Stay Thirsty was resolute after his early exertions, and none of his rivals cut into his advantage.

“He was under pressure all the way,” Pletcher said. “He ran a huge, huge race.”

Stay Thirsty must have been thinking: It’s about time I got a little praise.

© 2011, The Washington Post