The most important decision that owners and trainers can make when managing a racehorse is the choice of when to be conservative and when to be bold. The people in charge of the three most prominent horses in the Breeders' Cup — Uncle Mo, Goldikova and Havre de Grace — have all opted for boldness, ensuring some great drama, and probably some intense second-guessing, at Churchill Downs.
Owner Rick Porter and trainer Larry Jones could have chosen a safe course for Havre de Grace by running her against other females in the Ladies' Classic. She would have been almost unbeatable in that $2 million event on Friday. Instead Havre de Grace will challenge the nation's best males in the Classic — a decision by Porter and Jones that is risky but is both sporting and rational. The filly won her lone start against colts, and if she can do it again Saturday she'll earn the Horse of the Year title.
Trainer Freddie Head made the unconventional decision to keep Goldikova in competition at the age of 6 so that she could try to win the Breeders' Cup Mile against males for a fourth consecutive year. The outcome is hardly a certainty — Goldikova's European form doesn't look as strong as in past years — but she deserves the chance to accomplish an unprecedented feat.
However, boldness is not always a virtue. Thrusting a horse into a race where he doesn't belong, or for which he is not adequately prepared, can be a devastating mistake. Even though Uncle Mo is almost certainly the most gifted racehorse in the United States, it is reasonable to question whether he ought to be running in the Classic.
Nobody could doubt Uncle Mo's innate talent after he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill last year, earning the 2-year-old championship and establishing himself as one of the most brilliant thoroughbred prospects in years. He had the potential to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. But almost nothing has gone right for him as a 3-year-old. After he suffered a shocking defeat in April, he lost weight and looked listless, and was knocked out of the Triple Crown series. Weeks passed until veterinarians discovered that he was suffering from a rare liver ailment called cholangiohepatitis.
Uncle Mo didn't return to competition until Aug. 27 at Saratoga, losing his comeback race by a nose in a good effort. Then he faced three rivals in the1-mile Kelso Stakes at Belmont Park, where he got an uncontested early lead and scored a decisive victory, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 118, the fastest performance at a mile or more by any horse this year. Uncle Mo was back. But back to do what?
The prudent move would be to run him in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and then aim him for a 4-year-old campaign to prove that he is the best horse in the world. (Though owner Mike Repole has already made a deal to stand Uncle Mo at stud, and breeders are always in a hurry to retire prospective stallions, Repole says that he still has control of the horse's plans next year.) But the owner is an ambitious man who thinks big; he co-founded the company that made VitaminWater and sold it for $4.1 billion. When he got into racing, he wanted to make a big splash by winning the country's highest-profile races, not by taking a consolation prize like the Dirt Mile. So Repole wants to run Uncle Mo in the $5 million Classic.
I cannot recall a good horse going into a major race on dirt so underprepared as Uncle Mo will be on Saturday. The distance of 1¼ miles often poses a tough challenge for horses who excel at shorter distances. There are 137 years of Kentucky Derby history to prove that point. Trainers plan the schedules of Derby candidates months in advance to make sure they will be fit enough to go the distance.
But trainer Todd Pletcher didn't have time to give Uncle Mo anything resembling a conventional sequence of prep races. He acknowledged that his plan was dictated by "the cards that we were dealt in the spring." As a result, the colt will go into the most demanding test of his life without any stamina-building prep races. His minimal preparation — two starts since early April, at distances of 7 furlongs and 1 mile — is a sharp contrast with his rivals' regimens. Since the spring, Havre de Grace has made six starts at distances from 11⁄16 miles to 1¼ miles, winning five of them. The international star So You Think has raced seven times at 1¼ miles or longer in the past six months.
Repole understands that his colt will have to overcome significant disadvantages Saturday, but he relishes the challenge. "It will take not just a superhorse but one of the greatest horses of all time to pull off a feat like this," he said. And he relishes the drama: "I know as a racing fan I want to see Uncle Mo in the Classic. ... I think the fans want it, I think the media wants it, I think ESPN wants it, I think the Breeders' Cup wants it."
He omits the key question: Does Uncle Mo want it? Even superhorses such as Secretariat and Seattle Slew have lost races when their fitness or preparation were compromised. Ambitious owners cannot bend thoroughbreds to their will — and they shouldn't try to do so.
Yes, Uncle Mo could verify his greatness if he wins Saturday.
But if he gets trounced — a distinct possibility — his 3-year-old season will go down as a failure. A horse of his talent deserves a better legacy. And he deserves the chance to show what he can do when he is at his best.