Almost four months have passed since the last time trainer Todd Pletcher was preparing to run champion Uncle Mo and his graded stakes-winning stablemate Stay Thirsty on the same day. And while nervous energy can still be detected, the mood around his shedrow recently has done a 180 compared to what it was nearly 17 weeks ago.
Instead of having to somberly explain why Uncle Mo was being scratched from the Kentucky Derby on the eve of the race, Pletcher has had the more pleasant task of describing all the signs of progress the son of Indian Charlie has shown leading up to his comeback start in Saturday's Grade I King's Bishop at Saratoga.
After watching Stay Thirsty run like the long shot he was considered to be on the first Saturday of May, Pletcher may well witness the son of Bernardini emerge as the 3-year-old division leader should he win Saturday's main event, the Grade I Travers Stakes, where he is the morning-line favorite.
"It will be," Pletcher said of Saturday's lineup, "one of the more interesting days."
Leave it to the restrained Pletcher to be the master of understatements.
The Mike Repole-owned duo of Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo will be aiming to show how far they've come in the last few months. Stay Thirsty takes on nine others in the $1 million Travers, and Uncle Mo is making his first start since April in the 7-furlong King's Bishop.
As the reigning juvenile champion, Uncle Mo was expected to be the dominant member of his class only to suffer his first career loss when he ran third in the Grade I Wood Memorial after easily taking the Timely Writer Stakes in his season debut. Uncle Mo was knocked off the Triple Crown trail due to cholangiohepatitis, a rare liver disease that caused him to lose more than 100 pounds and threatened his racing career.
In the weeks Uncle Mo spent rehabilitating at WinStar Farm, Repole said the only long-term thoughts he had for his champion involved keeping him alive.
Since returning to Pletcher's barn to resume training in July, Uncle Mo has been a different horse. He has regained all the weight he dropped, and in the six timed workouts he has had in preparation for the King's Bishop, Repole and Pletcher have said they see a colt who still might be the best of his generation.
"It's been four months and if you had told me that going forward we'd be in the position we're in now, I'd have been shocked," Repole said. "Four months ago, I didn't know if this horse was going to survive. I was very worried about him surviving, I wasn't worried about him racing.
"Right now, he's training probably the best he's ever trained. His coat is there, his energy is there, his passion is there, his appetite is there; his personality is there. He's a special horse and he's acting like he's a special horse."
Ever since he broke his maiden by 141/4 lengths on Travers day last year, Uncle Mo has succeeded in shoving Stay Thirsty to the backdrop.
Stay Thirsty still doesn't have the Grade I accolades Uncle Mo earned last year when he captured the Champagne Stakes and Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but the stoutly built bay has developed into a leading sophomore contender in his own right. Following his disappointing 12th-place Derby finish, Stay Thirsty ran second in the Belmont Stakes before his breakout, 4-length victory in the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 30.
Repole has been telling everyone Stay Thirsty was a horse that would blossom as the year and distances went on. Though some believed the wet track helped move his performance up on Belmont day, Stay Thirsty answered a new set of questions when he earned a top Beyer Speed figure of 106 over a fast surface in the Jim Dandy.
"I've been saying all along he was going to be a late 3-year-old ... and I think that's exactly what we've got right now," Repole said. "If you had told me 'Mike you're going to win the Jim Dandy', I would have thought it was going to be Uncle Mo and if you would have said 'You're going to have the favorite in the Travers', I would have thought it'd be Uncle Mo. But you know, things happen for a reason."
Stay Thirsty will have the stiffest test of his career trying to beat Preakness winner Shackleford, Belmont winner Ruler On Ice and Haskell victor Coil among others in the Travers. The colt does have the advantages of home, having never finished worse than second at a New York track — including a win in the Grade III Gotham this spring — and also has proven handy enough to put himself in the mix without relying on pacesetters.
"The great thing about Stay Thirsty is we can let (jockey) Javier (Castellano) ride his race," Pletcher said. "If Shackleford wants to go, that's fine. If Shackleford decides to sit back, (Stay Thirsty) is so tactical, he can be close or sit back a little bit. He's not a horse we have to worry too much about pace scenarios or a whole lot of tactics."
Having the two best horses he has ever owned running within a half hour of each other is something that is already tugging at Repole's heart strings.
As much as he wants Stay Thirty to keep the spotlight he has earned, he wants Uncle Mo to reestablish the form that used to turn every rival into an also-ran.
"They're both dream races to win," Repole said. "When it comes between Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty, I could tell you that the Travers is the race I'd rather win. But if Uncle Mo comes in second and Stay Thirsty wins, I'm going to be happy but not as happy as I should be, to be honest with you."