Down and almost out in Queens: Uncle Mo, the latest great hope for New York horse racing, stumbles hard
11:39 am Apr. 11, 2011
Saturday afternoon's Wood Memorial race at Aqueduct was supposed to be a hometown coming-out party for a celebrated horse, Uncle Mo, and its owner, Queens native and regular-guy-made-good Mike Repole. Instead, the day turned into a shocking disappointment for Repole and his hundreds of supporters who filled the normally empty stands of the dilapidated track in Ozone Park.
Uncle Mo finished third in a race that, until Saturday, was seen as little more than a warm-up for next month's Kentucky Derby. This weekend's result at the Wood Memorial has created doubts about whether Uncle Mo will even run in Churchill Downs next month. (Repole and Uncle Mo's trainer, Todd Pletcher, put out a statement yesterday insisting that they're still planning for the Derby.)
Uncle Mo's loss was all the more disheartening for Repole, who founded Vitamin Water, because it played into what the few critics of his horse have been saying: Uncle Mo's pedigree does not show that he can run long distances. Mo's sire (his father), Indian Charlie, was a highly regarded colt who slowed down the stretch in the Kentucky Derby in 1998 and finished third.
In a disquieting parallel, Uncle Mo led most of the way Saturday only to be caught by two little-known horses in the final furlong of the race—the first time that Uncle Mo was asked to run more than a mile this year. Wearing Uncle Mo hats and t-shirts, the chanting and cheering members of the horse's fan section in the Equestris restaurant at Aqueduct became silent in the race's final moments.
I found myself strangely depressed in the wake of the race, taking a slow train back to Rockaway. Smart bettors were probably patting themselves on the back, seeing another favorite take a tumble and making a bundle on it. And that's where it hurts. Mo's failure may line some pockets, but that won't save racing.
During his glorious run as a two-year-old last year and Repole's refreshing talk as an owner, Uncle Mo seemed to be the hope of a dying sport, after 32 years without Triple Crown winner to rally around.
And, as racing fans know, it's more than that: the animal is the purest form of an athlete. A horse will never make excuses, demand a trade, talk smack, or get arrested. A horse is tabula rasa, allowing its fans to see in it what they will. The only way a horse will break your heart is by losing. And that's what happened on Saturday with Uncle Mo, a horse that has already come to mean a lot of things to lots of different people.
Uncle Mo's boosters note that Secretariat finished third in the Wood in 1973, and Repole even joked after the race that he watched the movie on Friday night. As much I want to embrace the parallel, there are many differences between the two horses.
Before running in the Wood, Secretariat had far more experience than Uncle Mo (ten previous races, compared to four) and had already twice won at distances beyond a mile. Does this mean Uncle Mo can't gut out a long race? Or is it that Pletcher, the trainer, babied Uncle Mo, leading to Saturday's Buster Douglas-like knockout? Who knows?
There is certainly time for Team Mo to rebound, but there are horses that have appeared far fresher than Uncle Mo this year, including the limber sprinter The Factor and the powerful closer Dialed In. Perhaps one of them could take the crown that Repole is coveting—which would also be an international story.
But what makes Repole unlike so many other owners is his charm, and the fact that, despite his immense newfound wealth, he's easy for would-be fans to identify with.
Following Saturday's fiasco, he bumped into me as he left the bathroom at Aqueduct, saw my drawn face, patted me on the back, and promised: "Don't worry. He'll bounce back."
Bob Hardt is political director for NY1 and Capital's racing correspondent.
More by this author:
- New York racing gets through Stakes weekend, resumes hibernation
- Belmont, darkly: I'll Have Another runs for the Triple Crown as Andrew Cuomo cracks the whip