Toby's Corner wins the Wood Memorial
Toby's Corner wins the Wood Memorial

Click above to watch Toby’s Corner winning the Wood Memorial (G1)

(Photo : ESPN - Footage : Aquaduct)


Churchill Downs, Dirt, 2000m

7 May 2011

Ever been to the Derby? (pronounced “Durby in America”, as in Durban). Well, I’ve been to the Derby, and before my English friends claim there’s only one Derby, and that’s the English version, let me explain. It’s true that what turfists call the true test of a three-year-old, had its origins more than three hundred years ago in England, every self-respecting racing nation in the world now has a Derby, and for Americans, there’s only one derby, and that’s the Kentucky version. But if you ask the Yanks which one was the “Derby”, the mature among them will instantly remember the great duel between Affirmed and Alydar in 1978, (the first of three, and the last time they had a Triple Crown hero,) I happened to be on scholarship in the United States at the time, and I was lucky to meet a racing nut who insisted I attend that epic as his guest.

Our good neighbour and mate, Alec Hogg, was genius enough a few months back to invite us to join him at the annual shareholders meeting of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway on the last weekend in April, and he then proposed we find our way to Kentucky, where the following weekend, under the Twin Spires of the famous Churchill Downs, the big race is renewed for the 100 and somethingth time.

A month ago it was looking like a bit of a dull, one horse affair, but the victory of Dialled In Saturday a week back in the Florida Derby (Gr.1) and the outcome of this weekend’s Wood Memorial (Gr.1) has suddenly put a different complexion on the event.

There are some disciples though, who until Saturday were of the view it could still be a single dimentional race, and they are the fans of last season’s champion juvenile, Uncle Mo (by Indian Charley, one of the last remaining bastions of the Grey Sovereign branch of Nasrullah). Writing in the Blood Horse recently, Evan Hammonds, the editor, spoke of the growing legend around Uncle Mo. His unbeaten two year old campaign and his decisive start to his classic year in the Timely Writer Stakes (Gr.1), continued to draw comparisons to that of the mighty Seattle Slew. Both Seattle Slew and Uncle Mo ran brief but brilliant two-year-old campaigns, each making three starts. In the pre-Breeders Cup era, “Slew’s” nine and a half length cakewalk in the Champagne Stakes (Gr.1) was enough for him to be named Champion Juvenile of 1976. Uncle Mo’s three afternoon appearances in 2010, had made it pretty clear he was head and shoulders above the competition, as matters stood.

Seattle Slew made his first outing at three in March 1977, going seven furlongs in a very brisk 1:21⅜; Uncle Mo finished his one turn mile in 1:35,56 with a fantastic 22:46 final quarter. Slew went on to win the Flamingo Stakes (Gr.1) and the Wood Memorial (Gr.1) before being sent off the one-two favourite in the Kentucky Derby. A decisive win in Saturday’s Wood Memorial (Gr.1), would have left Uncle Mo, like the “Slew,” unbeaten going into the Kentucky Derby, scheduled for the first Saturday in May (7th). It was some scribes view that Uncle Mo has added more distance between himself and the rest of the pack, based on the results of the other preps thus far, and the fellows at The Blood Horse were rooting for him to join Slew’s exclusive club, as the only undefeated Derby winner in history.

That was all undone on Saturday, as Uncle Mo was unable to sustain his lead entering the stretch, and finished a rather tame and tired 3rd behind Toby’s Corner, a son of the underrated Florida stallion, Bellamy Road, who was emulating his fathers runaway victory in the 2005 version of the race.

Between Toby’s Corner and Dialled In, the Kentucky Derby morning line betting has been thrown into disarray, though Uncle Mo’s trainer, Todd Fletcher, did proffer the excuse that his charge had grabbed a quarter crack in his hoof, which might’ve compromised him.

Before we close, let’s get back to Dialled In, grandson of A.P. Indy, the most prolific sire of classic winners in modern America, whose retirement from stud duties was ironically announced the same day. His Hall Of Fame trainer, Nick Zito, has visited the winner’s podium at the Kentucky Derby on two previous occasions, and he knows what it takes. He also knows the antidote for the virus known as “Derby Fever”, which seems to get to the nerves of so many of his colleagues going into the big race. When Dialled In came home in Florida, Zito announced “he’s got a rocket engine, and he blasts off. He’s amazing. These horses don’t come around like this. He’s such a gift. I’ve had a lot of horses, but with this horse there’s something about him, the horse’s courage, the way he is. More importantly, you’re not supposed to do what he’s done in his young career”. It seems we might have a race on our hands after all.