Wood changes Derby picture

OZONE PARK, N.Y. -- Premier Pegasus' cannon-bone surgery on the eve on an intended and highly anticipated engagement in the Santa Anita Derby led the morning's racing news on Saturday, an unfortunate turn of fate. But there was more, all bad.

Jaycito's journey to Kentucky had hit a pothole in the form of an abscess of the right-fore hoof and he too would miss his primary 9-furlong Derby test Saturday at Santa Anita. Trainer Bob Baffert said he needs five days to right the ship, an optimistic estimate but at least hope is kept alive. After a second adjustment of the morning line, Silver Medallion had been installed as the third Santa Anita Derby favorite in as many days. From the deep south came news that To Honor and Serve, after two disappointing races, was off the Derby trail with a strained left-fore suspensory ligament and with the exception of Dialed In, the deep-closing winner, there is little to recommend any of the others who ran in the Florida Derby. The chase toward Churchill Downs was, on a sunny morning in Queens, a day on which the undefeated Kentucky Derby favorite pro-tem was due to make his second start of the year in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, beginning to unravel at the edges.

Then, the wheels came off.

A month from the Derby, the head-spinning upset of Uncle Mo in the Wood coupled with abdications and injuries leaves the picture beyond muddled.

Uncle Mo, 1-10 in the betting and apparently toying with eight rivals for the first seven furlongs of the Wood -- the point at which track announcer Tom Durkin proclaimed, "The moment of truth has come for Uncle Mo," was astonishingly empty in the stretch. He failed his first 9-furlong test despite having enjoyed a 1½- length advantage at the furlong pole but without answer when confronted by two upstarts -- the winner, Toby's Corner, whose previous credentials amounted to a victory in the Whirlaway Stakes run over the inner track at Aqueduct in the icy grip of February, and Arthur's Tale.

The previously undefeated champion 2-year-old of 2010 and in the estimate of more than one observer a potential Triple Crown winner, first bowed to Arthur's Tale, who passed the tarnished star while coming off a narrow victory in an $75,000 optional claiming race beneath the Darley Stable silks. Uncle Mo, looking a horse in the eye for the first time, yielded meekly as Toby's Corner wrested a neck decision in what was in the end a battle of unknowns.

Some moments of truth are more stunning than others. The upset was hailed by the sound of 12,144 jaws dropping, sighs of relief from bridge jumpers saved from financial carnage and cries of anguish from those holding Derby future-book tickets on the Wood favorite at 3-1. Premier Pegasus had a better day Saturday than Uncle Mo. Welcome back to square one.

Heavily favored horses are upset in important prep races and rebound toward the more important goal, but this one was without excuse in an effort that will provide encouragement neither to his connection nor his legion of fans. Patiently and confidently ridden by John Velazquez, who appeared to have more than enough horse with three furlongs to run, Uncle Mo failed his first serious test of the season, failed convincingly when asked to stay 9 furlongs for the first time after having won the first four races of his career, including the Champagne Stakes and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, with convincing aplomb and without threat. Apparently, the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream, a combination publicity stunt and public workout, was insufficient to propel Uncle Mo to a Grade I, even in the absence of proven Grade I company, which beyond the bowed favorite was lacking in the Wood. Almost certainly, the Wood will leave the light-bodied Uncle Mo short of an effective effort at 10 furlongs in Kentucky on the first Saturday of May. Derby winners need not rebound from poor efforts in their final prep races.

Trainer Todd Pletcher said afterward that Uncle Mo grabbed his left-front quarter, shearing off a piece of the hoof wall the size of a quarter while leaving the gate sharply in what appeared to be a clean break, but would not use the mishap as an excuse. Uncle Mo's immediate future, however, is uncertain.

"He grabbed a quarter leaving the gate," Pletcher said. "It didn't help but I'm not using that as an excuse. After that, he was kind of hounded early on. The fractions were reasonable. It was his first time going a mile and an eighth, first time over the Aqueduct surface. I was a little concerned turning for home at the three-sixteenths pole when he didn't really kick clear. I thought then that we were going to be in for a fight. You could see the last 50 to 60 yards he was tired.

"It goes without saying that if he wins by 10 today he goes [to Kentucky] with quite a bit different morning line than he is now. It doesn't mean we're not going to go, it doesn't mean we are going to go. We'll see how he comes out of it and make sure he's physically OK, that's a priority. It's totally up to Uncle Mo. My confidence hasn't changed in the horse. He's got a good win at Churchill and maybe this is what he needed to step forward four weeks from now."

And now there is one more traveler on the Derby trail.

"We had never talked about [the Derby]," said Graham Motion, who trains Toby's Corner. "The [owners] never mentioned it to me and I don't think [Dianne Cotter] even knew I'd nominated him early on. It's pretty neat. We're going, as long as he's doing fine. It looks like the mile and a quarter won't be a problem and it's very wide open now. It's obviously a very wide open group and I kind of think he ranks right up there with the top ones."

After Saturday, it is difficult to identify the top ones.

A month from the Derby, the head-spinning upset of Uncle Mo in the Wood coupled with abdications and injuries leaves the picture beyond muddled. It is now incomprehensible, a finger painting. Uncle Mo and to some extent Toby's Corner and Arthur's Tale, turned the calendar back to January.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at pmoran1686@aol.com.