Just two weeks ago this year's Kentucky Derby field was rounding into fine shape. But frailty and failure have quickly turned a fast and accomplished crop of 3-year-olds into a rather dubious and jumbled group. Nowhere was this more apparent than last Saturday at Aqueduct, where Uncle Mo, the 2010 male juvenile champion, bounded out of the starting gate in the Wood Memorial as the future-book favorite for the Derby and crossed the finish line as one of the more stunning losers of any prep race in recent memory. The 1--9 choice of the 12,144 in attendance, Uncle Mo led the nine-horse field through moderate fractions for the first seven furlongs. But with a quarter mile to run and nothing ahead of him but open track, the Todd Pletcher--trained colt came up empty, passed in the stretch first by 20--1 shot Arthur's Tale and then by eventual winner Toby's Corner, the second choice at 8--1. Uncle Mo finished third by a length in the biggest upset at the Wood since Secretariat lost to stablemate Angle Light in 1973. (Fans of Uncle Mo can take solace in the fact that Secretariat came up roses in Louisville.)
Few at the track were more surprised by the result than the connections of Toby's Corner, who said afterward that they hadn't even discussed the prospect of moving on to Louisville. But now that they've earned their way to Churchill Downs, they have to like their colt's chances.
The Derby field became more wide open a few hours later when Midnight Interlude, a lightly raced Bob Baffert trainee who broke his maiden last month, nosed out a win in the Santa Anita Derby, which had been watered down by the prerace scratches of two top Kentucky Derby contenders due to injury—Premier Pegasus (fractured cannon bone) is off the Triple Crown trail and Jaycito (bruised front foot) is pointing for the Lexington Stakes on April 23. Last Saturday's carnage had been preceded by a disastrous Florida Derby on April 3, in which three highly regarded Derby contenders—Soldat, Stay Thirsty and To Honor and Serve—failed miserably.
Three weeks out from the Derby the likely favorites are Dialed In, the late-running son of Mineshaft who won that Florida Derby, and The Factor, a brilliantly fast front-runner who is conditioned by Baffert. But even they give handicappers pause—Dialed In has yet to show he can do anything besides pass tired horses, while The Factor's speed hasn't yet been tested beyond 1 1/16 miles.
The Factor can ease some doubts by performing well in Saturday's Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles, and doing so would give Baffert, a three-time Derby winner, a strong hand. "We still have a ways to go," Baffert said after Dialed In's victory. "Things can happen to these horses, so you don't try and get too excited about it."
That's especially true this year.
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After two weeks of upheaval, here's how SI ranks the top contenders for May 7.
1. The Factor
Distance questions hover over the likely favorite (below) in Saturday's Arkansas Derby.
2. Dialed In
He overcame a speed-favoring track to win the Florida Derby but did so in a glacial 1:50.07.
3. Mucho Macho Man
The bay colt ran third in the Louisiana Derby, despite losing a shoe, and should improve.
4. Midnight Interlude
He will be trying to become the first Derby winner not to have raced at 2 since 1882.
This son of Victory Gallop should relish the Derby distance—if he recovers from a foot bruise.
Photograph by HEINZ KLUETMEIER
RIDING HERD Winner Toby's Corner (2) and runner-up Arthur's Tale (4) easily ran down Uncle Mo and jockey John Velazquez (orange cap) in the stretch.
DAVID QUINN/AP (THE FACTOR)