Each time Stay Thirsty succeeds in making life brighter for his connections, he also manages to make things more complicated — in a good way.
Juvenile champion Uncle Mo used to be the clear-cut pick among the two stablemates in terms of ability, but his setbacks because of a liver disorder combined with Stay Thirsty's back-to-back wins in the Grade II Jim Dandy and Grade I Travers Stakes have given Todd Pletcher pause. The trainer now balks at proclaiming which of the two he currently believes is superior.
"You know I'm not going to answer that question," Pletcher deadpanned during a national teleconference on Tuesday.
Just as it has become increasingly difficult to separate the Mike Repole-owned duo with regards to talent, this weekend will again make it impossible to keep tabs on one without also tracking the performance of the other.
Since their two names are often uttered in the same breath these days anyhow, it is fitting Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo will both be in action at Belmont Park this Saturday in what will be the most loaded weekend of racing this year.
Now the 3-year-old division leader off his 11/4-length win in the $1 million Travers, Stay Thirsty can all but lock up that trophy and enhance his case as a Horse of the Year candidate should he prevail when facing older horses for the first time in the Grade I, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he will break from post No. 3 as the 8-to-5 morning-line second choice in the seven-horse field.
Flat Out, part of the favored 7-to-5 entry with Birdrun, will break from post position 6.
Uncle Mo, who returned after a four-month absence to finish second by a nose in the Grade I King's Bishop on Travers day, will again be on the undercard when he also starts against older horses in the Grade II Kelso Handicap at one mile.
The 11/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup and Kelso are part of Belmont's aptly-named "Super Saturday" card featuring six graded stakes races including five Grade I tests. A total of 13 graded stakes are being held across the country Saturday with three more graded stakes and Longchamp's prestigious Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Group-I filled card in France highlighting Sunday's action.
If ever there is a horse who knows how to fight for the spotlight, Stay Thirsty is it. The son of Bernardini may have garnered kudos for his earlier win in the Grade III Gotham and impressive 4-length triumph in the Jim Dandy, but it was his Travers effort where he officially cast off his title of supporting player in the saga of Uncle Mo.
Despite stumbling at the start, Stay Thirsty was able to beat speedy Preakness Stakes winner Shackleford to the first turn but then relaxed through solid fractions before unleashing a sustained, powerful run at the head of the lane.
"Stay Thirsty is in that difficult position of always being Uncle Mo's stablemate, but the thing he's done is he's made his own résumé now," Pletcher said. "The Jim Dandy was a big step in that direction but when you put the Travers on top of that, I don't think he has to be compared to anyone."
Stay Thirsty does not have the sheer brilliance a healthy Uncle Mo possessed when he annihilated everything in his path as a 2-year-old. Though Uncle Mo may still have more raw talent — he was inches away from taking down a stout field of sprinters in the King's Bishop — Stay Thirsty's ongoing maturity is exactly the kind of thing horsemen want to see this time of year.
With both colts being pointed for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5, Pletcher knows they — not him — will ultimately answer the question of who has the barn bragging rights.
"Unfortunately (Uncle Mo's) 3-year-old year didn't get off to the start we wanted it to ... and it's taken us a while to get back to that," Pletcher said. "On the flip side of that, Stay Thirsty has gotten better and better. Running the two of them against each other is not really something I'm looking forward to, but we're talking about I think the two best 3-year-olds in the crop."
One could argue, however, Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo aren't even the two best horses running Saturday.
The Grade I, $350,000 Beldame, one race before the Gold Cup, features star distaffer and leading Horse of the Year candidate Havre de Grace, who handily defeated males in the Grade I Woodward on Sept. 3.
On the opposite coast, Havre de Grace's top rival, the champion filly Blind Luck, will be seeking her seventh career Grade I triumph in the Lady's Secret at Santa Anita.
Other Grade I races taking place Saturday include:
■ The $500,000 Flower Bowl featuring Grade I winner Stacelita.
■ The $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational with Arlington Million hero Cape Blanco.
■ The $350,000 Vosburgh Invitational featuring reigning champion sprinter Big Drama.
■ The $250,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes.
■ The $250,000 Norfolk Stakes.
■ The $250,000 Goodwood Stakes with multiple Grade I winner Acclamation taking on Haskell winner Coil.
■ The Grade II Indiana Derby at Hoosier and Grade II Cotillion Stakes at Parx also feature notable fields with Shackleford taking on seven rivals in Indiana and Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty facing multiple Grade I winner It's Tricky in the $750,000 Cotillion.