Kentucky Derby

Derby Dozen: Uncle Mo generating early excitement

John Velazquez rides Uncle Mo to victory during the Juvenile race at the Breeder's Cup horse races at Churchill Downs Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
John Velazquez rides Uncle Mo to victory during the Juvenile race at the Breeder's Cup horse races at Churchill Downs Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) ASSOCIATED PRESS

The reminders are everywhere for owner Mike Repole, from the never-ending flood of e-mail filling his inbox to the handwritten letter he received from a fan in Japan.

Not a day goes by when the 42-year-old businessman doesn't get some kind of note expressing high regard for his champion colt, Uncle Mo. And not a day goes by when the charismatic Repole doesn't get bombarded with hints about the enormous expectations for his horse.

"All my friends and family have Uncle Mo on Google alert so, whenever an article hits on him, I get it sent like 20 times to me, and it's like, 'Guys, stop, please,' " Repole said with a laugh. "Sometimes, halfway through a story, I'll just stop reading it."

Having a horse on the Kentucky Derby trail can be as stressful as it is exhilarating. But as Repole will attest, not many adjectives adequately describe what it's like to own the horse many are already pegging as the favorite.

Not since Arazi 19 years ago has a 2-year-old champion entered his sophomore season with the hype of Uncle Mo, whose three starts reeked of brilliance. Those performances place Uncle Mo squarely at the head of the class in the Herald-Leader's fourth annual Derby Dozen.

The phenomenon that is Uncle Mo began Aug. 28 when the son of Indian Charlie broke his maiden by 141/4 lengths going 6 furlongs at Saratoga. The bay colt has since continued to snatch the breath from his connections with smashing wins in the Grade I Champagne Stakes — where he equaled the race's second-fastest time after dueling through an opening half in 45.92 — and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a 41/4-length romp at Churchill Downs last November.

There have been many promising juveniles in recent years, but few with the effortless power and speed of Uncle Mo. His rapid development and ease at putting away competition have prompted some to suggest Uncle Mo is the best candidate to sweep the Triple Crown in years.

"He's done everything you would want one to do from 2 years old to 3; he's filled out," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled his first Derby winner last May in Super Saver. "He's already shown he's good enough and fast enough so we don't need him to improve much. We just hope, with natural maturity, he'll be a bit better."

As the co-founder of Glaceau, maker of Vitamin water and Smartwater, Repole thrives on pressure situations. Being the owner of Uncle Mo, however, requires a different kind of mettle.

Whenever Pletcher's number comes up on his phone, Repole's heart stops for fear the news might be bad. Now that Uncle Mo is back on the workout tab, Repole knows every serious move the colt puts in will be analyzed five times over.

"If Todd sends me a text, I call him before I finish reading it," Repole said. "With my other businesses, I can have an effect. I can make calls ... but here, at the end of the day, the horse is about 80 percent of it.

"Trust me, I'm savoring this. I know it can all end tomorrow, and that makes me appreciate it more. But now I'm at that limbo stage. My best 30 days was when he was at New Castle Farm (in Florida) just relaxing. Now he's back in training, and it's like, 'Here it comes.' "

Sitting at the top also means being at the head of the line for criticism. As quick as pundits are to praise Uncle Mo's raw talent, they are just as apt to wonder whether he'll remain superior once the rest of his class improves. There's also a perceived lack of stamina in Uncle Mo's pedigree because many of his sire's top progeny have been sprinters.

Not only does Repole implore detractors to take a better look at Uncle Mo's bloodlines, he points out that as fast as his colt runs early in a race, he has finished even stronger — a clear sign to him there is more in the tank.

"You know it doesn't concern me at all," Repole said of the distance question. "For one, he's out of an Arch mare, and last time I checked, (2010 Breeders' Cup Classic winner) Blame was by Arch. Also, if you watch Uncle Mo gallop out (after the 11⁄16-mile Breeders' Cup), it took the pony to slow him down. And when he came back, Todd said he wasn't even blowing."

As was the case with Super Saver, Pletcher is planning to prep Uncle Mo twice before the Derby with the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 12 as his likely first target and the Grade I Wood Memorial on April 9 as the other.

Should he stay that course, Uncle Mo would have only five career starts going into the Derby. Although Big Brown took the 2008 Derby in his fourth start, seasoning might be another question Uncle Mo's camp has to face.

Whenever Repole feels himself getting worked up over what might lie ahead, he reminds himself that the subject of all this anxiety is the same one who never fails to soothe the situation.

"I'm kind of in awe of my own horse. He's got this calming effect on me," Repole said. "It's like, he knows he's good. He comes over, puts his head on my shoulder, and it's almost like he's like, 'Relax. I see you're nervous. I got this one.' It's like a deep breath whenever I leave the barn."

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