The 3-year-old crown prince had everything his own way to the eighth pole in the $1-million Wood Memorial. He led by 1½ lengths, and it was time for the undefeated 1-9 favorite to blow away his eight rivals. Except that for the first time, he couldn't.
Inside Aqueduct's sixteenth pole, Uncle Mo's trademark acceleration wasn't there Saturday for jockey John Velazquez, and 20-1 shot Arthur's Tale took the lead for a few strides. Then Toby's Corner and rider Eddie Castro burst through between him and Uncle Mo, fading along the rail.
As Toby's Corner passed the wire a neck in front of Arthur's Tale and 1¼ lengths ahead of Uncle Mo, race caller Tom Durkin exclaimed, "And the Kentucky Derby is up for grabs!"
What on paper shaped up as a procession became the biggest Wood upset since Secretariat ran third before sweeping the 1973 Triple Crown.
"I can't say I'm shocked, but I'm disappointed," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "I thought the fractions were reasonable, but I was concerned leaving the three-sixteenths pole when he didn't kick clear. I thought that then we were going to be in for a fight."
Uncle Mo hesitated briefly before entering the gate, and Pletcher said he tore a small piece off his left front hoof at the start. Yet that didn't explain how a colt compared to Seattle Slew could look so lost at winning time.
"I was where I wanted to be," Velazquez said. "I told Todd he was a little anxious. He never dropped the bit and was a little flat down the lane."
After huddling with Pletcher for a few minutes in the paddock, owner Mike Repole said, "It's horse racing. That's why you have to run the races."
Repole, who admittedly was depressed, tried to lighten the mood by suggesting that he jinxed his colt.
"I saw 'Secretariat' last night, and that was probably a stupid idea," the Long Island resident said. "I should have turned it off."
Toby's Corner paid $19.40 after 11/8 miles in 1:49.93, and the Florida-bred son of 2005 Wood winner Bellamy Road earned $600,000 for owner-breeder Dianne Cotter. Not only did she breed Bellamy Road, who raced for George Steinbrenner, but Toby's Corner also is her only horse in training.
He overcame a difficult trip, surging from last on the backstretch before being blocked twice. Toby's Corner angled out in upper stretch and closed powerfully, with a final furlong in about 12 seconds.
"Oh, I was very surprised, but there's always hope," a giddy Cotter said. "It's such a wonderful day. I can't stop laughing."
Few in the crowd of 12,144 reacted that way.
Trainer Graham Motion said he and Cotter hadn't discussed the Derby, "but that doesn't mean I haven't thought about it. We're going as long as he's doing fine. It looks like a mile and a quarter won't be a problem, and it's very wide open now."
Pletcher hedged on his Derby plans for Uncle Mo.
"It doesn't mean we're going to go; it doesn't mean we're not going to go," he said. "We'll see how he comes out of it and make sure he's physically OK. That's a priority.
"It's totally up to Uncle Mo. My confidence hasn't changed in the horse. He's got a good win at Churchill, and maybe this is what he needed to step forward four weeks from now."