05/05/2011 5:00PM

Uncle Mo's Kentucky Derby question marks could mean enticing odds on a champion

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Picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby is never easy, but it may be harder than ever this year. Rarely has there been so little information on which to base a decision, and rarely has that information been less helpful in separating contenders from pretenders.

Horses are making fewer starts before the classics, and facing one another in meaningful prep matchups less than ever. The two favorites, Dialed In and Uncle Mo, will be making just their fifth and sixth career starts respectively. The five Grade 1 races for the 3-year-old males so far this year (the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Florida, and Santa Anita derbies and Wood Memorial) were extraordinary in two respects: All were decided by a neck, head, or nose, and all five received subpar Beyer Speed Figures of between 93 and 98.

The top finishers in these races are all perfectly nice horses, with a license to improve with age and experience, but there has been no spine-tingling, breakout performance that made me think I was witnessing the emergence of a really special colt. For one of those, I have to go back to last November – which is why I am stubbornly and wishfully picking Uncle Mo to run back to his dazzling Breeders’ Cup Juvenile triumph 26 weeks ago and win the 137th Derby.

A month ago I would have been apologizing for picking such an obvious and short-priced favorite, but that was before Uncle Mo finished a disheartening third as the 1-10 favorite in the Wood Memorial. Maybe the handful of prerace doubters were vindicated for their concern that this son of Indian Charlie was more of a miler than a router, or that he simply had not progressed from 2 to 3. Maybe, though, it’s not a terrible proposition that any horse can be forgiven one dull effort and that getting a suddenly inflated 9-2 on Uncle Mo as the second choice in an undistinguished field is a square gamble.

There was a similar situation four years ago. Street Sense, like Uncle Mo, had been the 2-year-old champion after a big-figure BC Juvenile victory at Churchill Downs. He too was widely considered to have peaked early when neither of his first two starts at 3 measured up to his Juvenile, and after he suffered a similarly deflating defeat as an odds-on favorite in his final prep: He ran second in a slow Blue Grass Stakes, finishing in a four-way photo with three mediocrities who weren’t supposed to get near him. Three weeks later, though, those three went on to run 11th, 12th, and 17th in the Derby while Street Sense rebounded and romped and paid $11.80.

It’s far from a perfect analogy. Rather than tiring late, Street Sense ran out of racetrack while finishing well in the Blue Grass, and the race was conducted on Polytrack, a surface on which he never could win. Even so, if you drew a line through his Blue Grass, you were paid generously for keeping the faith.

Uncle Mo’s Wood defeat was more troubling. Despite setting a mild and uncontested pace that should have allowed him to scamper away from his pursuers at the top of the stretch, he shortened stride late and was passed by two horses (Toby’s Corner and Arthur’s Tale, both subsequently injured and out of the Derby.) The sheer emptiness of the performance was discouraging, but maybe that makes it easier to throw it out entirely. He was found to have a minor intestinal infection two days later, which, in the considered opinion of medical professionals, may or may not mean anything.

If the doubters are right and Uncle Mo doesn’t want the distance and/or can’t recapture his 2-year-old form, the race is as open as can be. If I could get alive to six more of the remaining 19 in pick-whatever bets, my next choices would be (alphabetically) Archarcharch, Dialed In, Master of Hounds, Mucho Macho Man, Nehro, and Soldat.
Since tradition dictates I rank them, I’ll put Mucho Macho Man second, extending a mulligan for his troubled Louisiana Derby start; he’s a big improving colt with upside. For third I’ll go with Master of Hounds, a 1-for-7 European turf import who would be a throwout in most years but worth a look at 30-1 in 2011; his best Racing Post Ratings in England suggest he has got as much talent and class as many of these who will be shorter prices.

The post positions are being drawn as I write this and I have no objection to Uncle Mo’s starting from post 18. He ran the best race of his life (and over this track) the one time he stalked the lead from the outside instead of being in front after the first half-mile. History doesn’t always repeat itself, but at 9-2 on the morning line, I’ll pay to find out if it does this year.