In the estimate of trainer Todd Pletcher, the horses to beat as the Kentucky Derby preps are stretched to 9 furlongs and the twin spires at Churchill Downs loom on the horizon: Union Rags, Gemologist, Hansen and Creative Cause — three Grade 1 stakes winners, one a champion, and a colt he trains that lacks sufficient earnings in graded stakes to assure a place in the Derby starting gate.
Pletcher and Win-star Farm, collaborators in Super Saver’s 2010 Kentucky Derby victory, have chosen the $1-million Wood Memorial, now officially the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial, to test the undefeated Gemologist, a race that will make or break the colt’s Derby aspirations. For Gemologist and others, the Saturday engagement in Queens on the eve of Easter boils down to money, or specifically a lack thereof that would be remedied by a sufficient share of the seven-figure purse and earn passage to Louisville. For another, Alpha, a victory in the Wood represents affirmation after his most recent success, a 3 ¼-length plundering of the Withers Stakes.
Yet, the historic prep at Aqueduct has not been a productive approach to the Derby in recent years. Though Fusaichi Pegasus, Funny Cide and, once upon a time, Secretariat have won the Derby after having been defeated in the Wood, Pleasant Colony, in 1981, is the last Wood winner to find success in Louisville and 14 of the last 21 winners have failed even to make it to the Derby.
Among the Wood’s casualties: Last year’s winner, Toby’s Corner, suffered an injury to the left hind leg before reaching Churchill Downs. Two years ago, Eskendereya, perhaps the most talented of his generation, emerged from the Wood with a soft tissue injury in his left foreleg. I Want Revenge was found to have injured a ligament in his right fore-ankle on the morning of the 2009 Derby and was scratched. Buddha (’02), Coronado’s Quest (’98), Irgun (’94). Cahill Road (’91) and Leroy S. (’84), for various reasons missed the Derby after having won the Wood.
Trends, however long-lived, are eventually interrupted and in another year without a clear Derby favorite after heavily favored Union Rags was defeated last week in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream, barring a jaw-dropping upset, the Wood winner, as usual, will be ensconced in the division’s upper crust. It is the variety of plotlines that will be played out at Aqueduct on Saturday that make this Wood a compelling stop on the road the Kentucky. This renewal of the Wood is pivotal to the Derby’s complexion.
At the moment, Gemologist’s place in the Derby’s starting gate is not assured. Jockey Ramon Dominguez, who returns from injury just in time for the Wood, will eventually be forced to make a decision between the once-defeated Alpha, his assignment on Saturday, and Hansen, the defending divisional champion and Gotham Stakes winner in his last whose connections elected to pass this race in favor of next week’s Blue Grass Stakes run over the synthetic surface at Keeneland. The ever-dangerous Nick Zito, trainer of two Derby winners, hopes to see Casual Trick, a colt he describes as “an up and down deal,” confirm high expectations that have recently been tempered during a generally fruitless winter in Florida.
Gemologist has not been threatened while winning four races by a total of almost 16 lengths, most recently an allowance race at Gulfstream in his only start of the current year. Anticipation of improvement in his second start of the season is not likely misplaced. The degree of improvement, however, remains in question and is crucial. On paper, he is a length or two behind the best 3-year-olds. In reality, what appears on paper may very well provide an underestimation of a colt yet to be tested let alone defeated.
“We planned on a similar progression to what we did with Super Saver,” Pletcher said. “Originally, we were looking at the Tampa Derby or Rebel. We were a little too late for Tampa and the allowance race became an option without having to ship to Arkansas. Hopefully we’ll get enough graded earnings in the Wood. He’s had a great winter and spring, has been willing in his works and has a great temperament. But there’s no margin for error. It’s important to finish first or second. Third would put us on the bubble.”
The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Alpha, who may be the most formidable Derby prospect ever to carry the Godolphin blue colors, has no financial concerns after an early February win in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct and a runner-up effort behind Union Rags in the Grade 1 Champagne last autumn. He is the likely betting favorite in the Wood but the impression he makes on Dominguez will probably determine who is astride the regally bred Bernardini colt in Kentucky. For his part, Dominguez is, “thankful that I’m riding for two outfits that are open-minded and understand the game.”
A strong effort from Alpha, who drew the inside post in a field of eight, will only complicate the decision.
“You can only go by what you feel and see,” said Dominguez, who has been idle since suffering a separated collarbone in a March 18 spill at Aqueduct, was cleared to ride by doctors early this week and was set to return on Friday at Aqueduct. “When I rode him two back, he was coming off a layoff and he got a lot out of the race. He was very strong galloping out even though he’d run a hard race and was really tired. “He’s an easy horse to ride — straightforward and definitely bred to go far. He’s got a beautiful stride, a high cruising speed and feels like he’ll go along like that forever.”
Casual Trick, whose star has been tarnished in two starts subsequent to a second-place finish in the Jan. 20 Gulfstream Derby, flipped his palate both races, said Zito, and has since had a corrective surgical procedure. He too lacks the required earnings for admission to the Derby and without a breakthrough effort in the Wood, Casual Trick and Zito, an almost perennial figure on the Derby scene since 1990, will be otherwise occupied on the first Saturday of May.
“Hopefully, he’ll breathe better,” Zito said. “I had a good pattern going into the Gulfstream Park Derby. I thought [it] was a terrific race and obviously Reveron [the winner] finishing ahead of Union Rags [in the Florida Derby] gives us a little hope. But obviously there’s a bit of anxiety. Basically, we’re counting on the Wood.”
Originally Posted on ESPN