SARATOGA SPRINGS — As trainer Bob Baffert said, Uncle Chuck is on the varsity now.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, the son of Uncle Mo is the most lightly raced of the eight horses lined up for the 151st Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
He’s also considered the most formidable challenger to Tiz the Law.
Not only did Uncle Chuck not race last year, but he didn’t kick off his 2020 season until June 12, more a product of his status as a late bloomer than the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the racing calendar.
But under the reconfigured schedule, the colt actually is coming into his own at the perfect time in this imperfect year, having won the Grade III Los Alamitos Derby by four lengths on July 4.
He also comes along in his development after Baffert had watched his first string depleted by injuries earlier in the year, resulting in the retirement of undefeated Arkansas Derby winner Nadal and the sidelining of Charlatan, who might not even be ready for a comeback in time for the Oct. 3 Preakness.
Baffert still has Authentic and Thousand Words to chase the big prizes in the 3-year-old division, especially the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. But Uncle Chuck appears to be ready to play with the big boys now.
“Those horses got injured, and that really was more frustrating than challenging,” Baffert said during an NTRA teleconference on Tuesday. “And so now we have a different group here where a horse like Uncle Chuck would never run in the Derby [as originally scheduled in May], now he’s got a chance, but he’s got to run well in the Travers. He’s taking a big step up there and see if he can run with a horse like Tiz the Law and those other horses in there, see how he fits in and see how he handles his shipping.
“You’re trying to get the [Derby qualifying] points and whatever, but you’re trying to figure out your horse. What’s what, what does he like, what he doesn’t like. And so that’s the challenging part of it.”
The Travers offers Derby points to the top four finishers on a scale of 100-40-20-10.
With the 20 points Uncle Chuck earned for winning the Los Alamitos Derby, he’s on the outside of the bubble to make the Derby, if everyone ahead of him runs.
Some of Uncle Chuck’s pattern resembles that of two other former stars in the Baffert barn, 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify and 2016 champion 3-year-old male Arrogate, neither of whom raced at 2.
At least Justify was able to race early in his 3-year-old season, and Baffert was able to quickly move him up in distance, as he has with Uncle Chuck, who debuted at a mile before tackling a mile and an eighth in the Los Alamitos Derby.
Arrogate debuted in April of 2016, broke his maiden in June and had never raced in a stakes of any kind when Baffert brought him from California to try the mile-and- a-quarter Travers. All he did was a break a track record to start an undefeated run that included the Breeders Cup Classic and 2017 Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup.
“Then he [Uncle Chuck] can handle a next big jump,” Baffert said. “It was almost like Justify, sort of the same thing. I ran Uncle Chuck the mile and then I knew, OK, we’ve gotten caught up and you can only do that with a horse that you feel has the raw talent that he has.
“He’s shown me. So that’s why his second start, I wasn’t worried about running in the Los Al Derby, and now he’s running a mile and a quarter. And I really think with his stride, he’s just a big, tall lanky, beautiful horse that covers a lot of ground.”
Co-owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman, long-time Baffert clients who campaigned 2010 Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky, bought Uncle Chuck as a yearling at the 2018 Keeneland September Sale.
He needed time to grow into his frame, so Baffert sent him to the farm, and when he was ready, he chose not to start him in sprints.
“The ground that he covers when he moves, he’s long-jumping and covering a lot of ground and handles it well, doesn’t get tired,” Baffert said. “So far he’s done everything right. He’s still green. He still looks around a lot and I was tempted to put a little blinker on him, but he might get a little bit rank and I don’t want him to do that. He’s learning. But his last work was probably his most professional work. He had to work like that for me to put him on the plane.
“I had a strong group, and Nadal and Charlatan, that was just massive, massive hits right there. But for the Derby, Thousand Words and Authentic, he’s a very good horse and I still think he’s one of the top horses that we’ve got. Uncle Chuck, we’re going to find out how he fits with those horses. We won’t know until they turn for home, and I just hope he’s right there and he gets to strut his stuff.”