Pletcher, 43, last year snapped an 0-24 record at the season’s first leg of the Triple Crown when 8-1 Super Saver won after his other horse, Wood Memorial champion Eskendereya, was scratched with a leg injury.
In the 137th edition of the race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, Pletcher again will be without his most- accomplished horse after yesterday scratching Uncle Mo, last season’s 2-year-old champion, who on May 4 was made the 9-2 second favorite to Dialed In (4-1). Uncle Mo won’t run after being unable to sufficiently recuperate from a lingering stomach illness, leaving 20-1 Stay Thirsty as Pletcher’s only hope for consecutive Derby victories.
“It’s very, very, very, very, very disappointing,” Pletcher said at a news conference yesterday. “I said last year, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a horse as good as Uncle Mo. To not make it here is a big letdown. I take it as a personal failure.”
Uncle Mo, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, has had a stomach ailment that depressed his appetite and changed the condition of his coat, both signs of illness. Pletcher and owner Mike Repole decided the 3-year-old, who was diagnosed after the colt lost his first race in five starts when he placed third in the Wood Memorial, wouldn’t run after three veterinarians said they couldn’t pinpoint the cause of the issues.
‘The Right Choice’
“It was the right choice,” Repole, a New York businessman, said yesterday in an e-mail.
The decision reduces the Derby field to 19 today in the 1 1/4-mile race, which has a $2 million purse.
Pletcher had similar feelings last year when he scratched Zayat Stables’ Eskendereya, considered the horse to beat.
Ahmed Zayat, owner of Eskendereya, said he understands Pletcher’s and Repole’s pain and the disappointment for Derby fans who “want to see the best horses compete.”
“I am very saddened that the champion 2-year-old can’t make it to the biggest dance,” Zayat said yesterday in a telephone interview. “These animals are so compelling, so majestic and yet so fragile. I know exactly how it feels. It seriously hurts.”
Zayat will be counting on Nehro, whose trainer Steve Asmussen is seeking his first Derby victory.
“I am very realistic about our chances,” Zayat said. “It’s the hardest race in the world. So many variables. It’s the horse who gets the trip and lots of luck with 20 horses positioning. Everything has to go right.”
Nehro Moves Up
Nehro, at 6-1 early odds, replaces Uncle Mo as the second favorite. He’ll leave the starting gate from the 18th post position. The colt was runner-up in the Arkansas and Louisiana derbys.
“My horse is peaking,” Zayat said. “He’s telling me he’s a happy horse.”
Bob Baffert is the last trainer to win consecutive Kentucky Derbys, accomplishing the feat with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998.
Uncle Mo had a good chance of giving Pletcher back-to-back Derby victories, according to Washington Post racing writer Andrew Beyer. The average winning Beyer Speed Figure, a numerical scale of a horse’s performance based on race time and surface, has been 109 in the Derby over the past 25 years.
“Only two entrants have ever earned a triple-digit number,” he wrote this week, commenting on the slowness of this year’s field. “Uncle Mo, of course, was brilliant as a 2-year- old, earning a spectacular figure of 108 that suggested he was a superstar in the making.”
Repole’s Other Horse
Repole, who said he will have an entourage of 98 friends and family joining him in his box on the finish line, still has a chance to own a Derby winner this year. Stay Thirsty, also trained by Pletcher, will be ridden by Ramon Dominguez from the fourth post position.
Pletcher, a five-time winner of the Eclipse Award for champion trainer since 2004, has had 2,090 first-place winners among his 12,583 starts as of May 5, according to Equibase. He has won nearly $200.4 million in purses for his career, joining his mentor D. Wayne Lukas and the late Bobby Frankel in reaching the $200 million threshold. His best year was 2007, when his horses won $28.1 million.
“Any horse is only 50-50,” Repole said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “You can wake up on any day and your Derby horse can pop a tendon. They’re fragile animals.”
Pletcher said he told Repole to look toward the future.
“This decision is really, really going to stink on May 7, but let’s hope the rest of the year, when they run the Jim Dandy, Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic and those type of races, it’s going to be real good,” the trainer said he told the owner.
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