Midnight Interlude gives Baffert a trio
Bob Baffert is headed toward the Kentucky Derby with three contenders, giving the Hall of Fame trainer one of his strongest hands in years. Yet. with four weeks to go, he isn't getting cocky, especially after a weekend of upsets along the Derby trail.
Uncle Mo dropped from the unbeaten ranks with a thud, while Midnight Interlude, the least accomplished of Baffert's Derby candidates, ran his way into the suddenly chaotic picture with a narrow victory in the Santa Anita Derby.
Uncle Mo's invincibility took a major hit with his third-place finish in the Wood Memorial, won by long shot Toby's Corner. He had been undefeated, including a runaway win in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and was threatening to turn the May 7 Derby into a one-horse show.
''I went into yesterday thinking Uncle Mo was a standout; today it is a very wide-open crop,'' trainer Todd Pletcher said Sunday.
Uncle Mo's failure to hold the lead through the stretch in the Wood has raised questions about the colt nearly a month before the Kentucky Derby, which asks the 3-year-olds to extend themselves to 1-1/4 miles.
''The horse has been the big talked-about star, and they kind of got to babying him a little bit,'' Baffert said.
Pletcher said Sunday that Uncle Mo came out of the race in sound condition. He stepped on himself and injured the back of his hoof, although the trainer described it as ''very minor and insignificant.'' Uncle Mo will arrive at Churchill Downs on April 18 to prepare for the Derby.
''We'll see if we can get him prepared to step up,'' Pletcher said. ''It was not a typical Uncle Mo performance, but I do not feel like the mile-and-an-eighth was an issue.''
Baffert noted Secretariat was upset in the Wood and then came back to win the Triple Crown in 1973.
''I think he just got tired. Sometimes a horse needs a gut-wrencher like that,'' he said. ''I still think he's a very good horse, and he probably got a lot out of that race.''
Beside Uncle Mo, Pletcher's other Derby candidates are Gotham winner Stay Thirsty; Brethren, a half brother to last year's winner, Super Saver, also trained by Pletcher; and the trio of Praetereo, Queen'splatekitten and Sensational Slam.
Baffert had put much of his focus going into Saturday's Santa Anita Derby on Jaycito. The colt inherited the favorite's role after initial favorite Premier Pegasus was scratched with a hairline fracture in his left front leg.
Then Baffert was forced to scratch Jaycito because of an injured foot, leaving him with only Midnight Interlude in an attempt to win for his record sixth time.
The colt was lightly regarded at 13-1 because he had lost his first two races before winning for the first time by 8-1/2 lengths March 20.
On Saturday, he overhauled Comma to the Top in the stretch and won by a head.
''I didn't know what to really expect from him,'' Baffert said. ''I thought I had a good chance if he ran like he was training and he did.''
Midnight Interlude had earned a measly $49,680, but his win in the Santa Anita Derby pushed his total to $649,680, easily enough to get him a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.
Jaycito will get a chance to heal before running his final prep in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 23. If he does well, he'll ride up the road to Louisville for the Derby.
Baffert's third possibility is The Factor, who, like Uncle Mo, has enjoyed a high profile. The colt gets his final pre-Derby test Saturday in the Arkansas Derby, with Pletcher's Brethren among his rivals.
Baffert has taken a trio of horses to Louisville twice before, with none of them finishing in the top three. He last did it in 2006, when Point Determined was ninth, Sinister Minister was 16th and Bob and John 17th.
''I know what it feels like to go there loaded and walk away empty, so I never take anything for granted,'' said the three-time Derby winner, who last hoisted the gold trophy in 2002 with War Emblem.
''My job is to just keep 'em all healthy, keep everybody happy. It's a tough job.''