Gem of a Wood Memorial
Trends have played a major role in handicapping over the last thirty years concerning the Kentucky Derby. Several trends have steered handicappers away from certain horses because they don’t fit the dosage index or they are the morning line favorites. Others stay away from geldings, polytrack horses, BC Juvenile champions and recently Wood Memorial winners. Some horses have broken these curses over the last several years, but the amount of Wood winners is almost nonexistent.
It has been 12 years since the last winner of the Wood Memorial went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Fusaichi Pegasus was the overwhelming favorite in both races and proved he was worthy of the derby crown. Since Pegasus’ victory, the only Wood winner to make some noise in the Triple Crown was Empire Maker in 2003. Empire Maker ran 2nd to Funny Cide (3rd in the Wood) in the Kentucky Derby and won the Belmont Stakes five weeks later. In fact the last three Wood winners (I Want Revenge, Eskendereya, and Toby’s Corner) haven’t even made it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. So why would anyone want to win the Wood Memorial Stakes and hope to win the Kentucky Derby?
One reason is that it is a Grade 1 race. A winner of a G.1 race improves a horse’s stature and secures more money in the breeding shed for owners. Another reason may be the $1 million dollar purse. $600,000 is guaranteed to the winning connections which would secure a starting position in the Kentucky Derby. A third reason may be the simplest of them all, to break the curse and restore glory to the prestigious race. A field of 8 are entered for the 1 1/8 mile race this afternoon and two distinct horses look to not only add the title of Wood Memorial winner to their impressive resumes, but they are looking to add the title of Kentucky Derby favorite as well.
Winstar Farm’s Gemologist has been installed as the 8-5 favorite in the G.1 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. The Todd Pletcher trained colt looks to extend his win streak to six under regular rider Javier Castellano. Gemologist began his derby prep season with a dominating 7 length victory in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park in March. Pletcher, who often has a large contingent of derby horses, feels his horse is ready for the upgrade and ranks Gemologist as his top contender. As a 2 yr. old, Gemologist won all three of his races including the G.2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. In terms of graded earnings, he is on the outside looking in with just over $100,000 to his name. A win or second place finish will undoubtedly earn him a spot in the derby field.
Gemologist’s main competition will be Alpha, winner of the G.3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct in February. Alpha is 2 for 2 at Aqueduct and a win on Saturday will boast his chances as derby favorite on May 5. Trainer Kiaran MacLaughlin chose to skip the G.2 Gotham last month and train the Godolphin owned colt at Gulfstream Park throughout the winter and bring him back to New York fresh and ready to run. At 5-2, Alpha is coming off a long layoff with jockey Ramon Dominguez in the irons. MacLaughlin has called his horse a professional and couldn’t be happier with his training efforts. Alpha has earned $180,000 and a third place finish will keep him in the top 20.
With these two horses vying for the win, it is hard to imagine that one or both won’t make the derby field. But, this is horse racing and anyone can win on any given day. Last week’s performances by Take Charge Indy and Hero of Order vindicated this philosophy and muddled the derby picture tremendously. So, a sleeper could be sitting pretty in this field as well.
My Adonis last ran 2nd to Gotham winner Hansen. He has only finished out of the money once in nine lifetime starts. Trainer Kelly Breen has been working My Adonis at neighboring Belmont Park, and he turned in a bullet :47 four furlong work on March 30. My Adonis retains jockey Elvis Trujillo. Tiger Walk competed in both the Withers and Gotham running decent races. Unraced at two, Tiger Walk has two wins to his credit, both on the inner track at Aqueduct. Jockey John Velazquez has the mount aboard Tiger Walk. And New York racing wouldn’t be the same without Nick Zito somewhere in the fold. Zito saddles Casual Trick with Corey Nakatani in the irons. Casual Trick will need a monster performance to land Zito a derby starter next month.
$1 million Wood Memorial (gr. I, Race 9, 5:15 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, Odds
1. Alpha (KY), R A Dominguez, 123, K P McLaughlin, 5-2
2. Casual Trick (KY), C S Nakatani, 123, N P Zito, 20-1
3. My Adonis (KY), E Trujillo, 123, K J Breen, 8-1
4. Teeth of the Dog (KY), J Bravo, 123, M R Matz, 15-1
5. Street Life (KY), J Alvarado, 123, C C Brown, 4-1
6. Gemologist (KY), J Castellano, 123, T A Pletcher, 8-5
7. Tiger Walk (KY), J R Velazquez, 123, I Correas IV, 15-1
8. The Lumber Guy (NY), C H Velasquez, 123, M E Hushion, 8-1
If Pletcher is high on a horse, I’m usually biting on the end of the line. However, I was very impressed with Alpha’s win in the Withers and feel like he can capitalize on that effort with a strong run today. He has the pedigree to run being the son of Bernardini, and MacLaughlin is a well-respected trainer who gets the most out of his horses on big days. If Gemologist is out of the money, look for him to be Pimlico bound two weeks after the derby. But, I believe it will be a Alpha-Gemologist one-two finish. They are the class of the field and should shine at the Big A in the Big Apple this afternoon.
We would like to wish all the connections good luck this afternoon in the Wood Memorial. The Wood highlights a great day of racing in the Empire State with three other graded races on the undercard. The race will also be televised on NBC starting at 5:15 ET. Perhaps one of the eight horses entered will break the streak with a thrilling victory in the Kentucky Derby after winning the Wood Memorial. Time will tell and it remains to be seen. Good luck once again.
Written by Big Brink