In order for the son of Indian Charlie to go on to historic Kentucky Derby accolades, he will have to overcome circumstances that have plagued so many Wood Memorial winners who have either been victimized by injury before the Kentucky Derby, or unable to fulfill their expectations on the first Saturday in May.
Few decades have been as difficult on Wood Memorial winners than that of the oughts in the new century. If nothing else, Uncle Mo owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher can be grateful of a new decade. Although that ten year span seems to have been the most difficult on Wood winners, the Kentucky trouble for New York winners goes many years before that.
The most recent decade before the 2010s, began with trainer Bob Baffert winning his first Wood Memorial with Congaree over Florida Derby (gr. 1) winner Monarchos. While Congaree would be third choice in the Kentucky Derby at just more than 7-1 odds behind favorite Point Given (also trained by Baffert) and Dollar Bill, he came to Kentucky amid plenty of optimism off of his Wood victory.
After stalking the early leaders in the Kentucky Derby that year, Congaree raced six-wide around the far turn of the Kentucky Derby and took the lead at the top of the stretch. However, the late charging Monarchos took advantage of Congaree's record setting Derby first mile and passed him with less than a sixteenth of a mile to go, drawing off to win by more than four lengths. Invisible Ink caught Congaree at the wire for second while the Wood winner had to settle for third.
Two years later, Empire Maker and trainer Bobby Frankel would become the next Wood winning disappointments. Empire Maker had also won the Florida Derby before winning the Wood, so by the time the the first Saturday in May rolled around, the royally-bred son of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner and champion Unbridled was a solid favorite at 5-2 odds at Churchill Downs.
Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Baily was able to negotiate almost a perfect trip for Empire Maker in the Kentucky Derby as he rallied from eighth to third to second at the top of the stretch. The two would take on a little New York-bred gelding they had defeated in the Wood, but Funny Cide would turn the Wood exacta around in Kentucky by holding off runner-up Empire Maker by a length and three-quarters.
Another two-year gap and Bellamy Road is winning an allowance race at Gulfstream Park by nearly 16 lengths in his sophomore year debut. Owned by George Steinbrenner’s Kinsman Farm, Bellamy Road then won the Wood Memorial by 17-1/2 lengths and equaled the track record in doing so. The colt would go to Kentucky as a solid 3-1 favorite over Arkansas Derby (gr. 2) winner Afleet Alex, but could not manage a rally and finish seventh in a Kentucky Derby won by 50-1 long shot Giacomo.
The last two Wood Memorial winners were perhaps the most frustrating – not because they were unable to live up to expectations on the Churchill Downs race track, but because they were victimized by injuries. What makes both their stories so extra difficult was that both lost their Kentucky Derby dreams in the final days leading up to the big race.
I Want Revenge had won the 2009 Gotham Stakes (gr. 2) by 8-1/2 lengths after moving to the natural dirt tracks of New York from the synthetics of California. On the West Coast, I Want Revenge had chased home Pioneerof the Nile in both the CashCall Futurity (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. 3) in their 3-year-old debuts at Santa Anita. But once exposed to racing on natural dirt, I Want Revenge seemed to improve greatly.
There was no question about I Want Revenge and his fondness for natural soil after winnning the Gotham Stakes in New York by 8-1/2 lengths. Then in the Wood, he and jockey Joe Talamo overcame a terrible break to race into contention around the far turn. At the top of the stretch, I Want Revenge looked ready to pounce on the leaders before the window slammed shut on the wall of horses in front of them. After steadying I Want Revenge to almost a gallop, Talamo steered the big colt to the outside for what looked like a futile attempt at winning the Wood. Then I Want Revenge seem to personify his name and accelerated to win by a length and a half as track announcer Tom Durkin exclaimed, “a remarkable victory by I Want Revenge!”
Everything went well for I Want Revenge leading up to the Kentucky Derby. His works were fast and trainer Jeff Mullins was happy. Then, the morning of the Kentucky Derby, swelling and heat was discovered in the left front ankle of I Want Revenge. Mullins scratched his promising colt just hours before the race and another Wood Memorial star had bitten the Kentucky dust during the decade.
A year later, Eskendereya (photo right) would win the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) at Gulfstream Park by more than eight lengths before going to New York for the Wood Memorial. Also trained by Todd Pletcher, Eskendereya had little trouble in New York, winning the Wood by nearly 10 lengths in a runaway.
Again a Wood Memorial winner was the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby in the weeks leading up to the Run for the Roses. But on April 25, just days before the race, the injury monster again hit the Wood winner with swelling in the left ankle. This time it was the ankle belonging to Eskendereya and trainer Todd Pletcher was forced to withdraw I Want Revenge from Kentucky Derby contention.
Whether a curse can be established after only ten years is left to the judgment of an individual. After all, Fusaichi Pegasus won both the Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby in 2000. Pleasant Colony (1981), Seattle Slew (’77), Bold Forbes (’76) and Foolish Pleasure (’75) also won in Kentucky and New York.
This list of Wood Memorial winners who lost as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby includes Captain Bodgit (’97), Unbridled’s Song (’96), Easy Goer (’89), Private Terms (’88), Bold Ruler (’57), Nashua (’55) and Native Dancer (’53) going back 60 years.
Certainly races that occurred in 1996, 1989 and 1957 have little or no effect on the 2011 Wood Memorial and Kentucky Derby, regardless of the success of Uncle Mo Saturday. But then again, there is no reason to believe that the Bambino has a monopoly on New York sports curses either.