Shagaf One to Beat in the Wood

Shagaf (2) wears down Laoban (1) to get up at the wire in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

Shagaf (2) wears down Laoban (1) to get up at the wire in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

Back in the day, the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) at Aqueduct was a shining beacon for Triple Crown-bound horses. A total of 11 Derby winners prepped for the Run for the Roses via the New York and Wood Memorial route.

Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox got things off right six years into the event in 1930, and was followed by Twenty Grand, Johnstown, Count Fleet (also a Triple Crown winner), Hoop Jr., Assault (another Triple Crown winner), Dancer’s Image (though he was ultimately disqualified in the Derby), Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes, Seattle Slew (yet one more Triple Crown winner), Easy Goer and Fusaichi Pegasus. No other event can claim that four Triple Crown winners used its race to prep for racing immortality. Oh, and it may be important to mention that the legendary Secretariat finished third in the Wood while battling an abscess in his mouth that day.

1973 Wood Memorial

Unfortunately a lot has changed over the last 40 years and the Wood, which has produced good horses overall, hasn’t had a huge impact on the outcome of the Kentucky Derby (GI), generally speaking. And this year is a head-scratcher, loaded with potential talent, but not much substance to qualify any as a legitimate Derby contender… yet.

Unfortunately, New York will host the worst weather for all the Derby preps on Saturday. The day’s high may not get above 40 degrees and, if it’s not raining as forecasted, it will be icy and/or snowing.

Plan on a cold afternoon of racing, with thick winter coats and off-track conditions ruling the day.

Undefeated Shagaf leads the field postward off three wins, including the Gotham Stakes (GII) last out, and is hands down the runner to beat. Bred to love the nine furlongs, the Shadwell Stable homebred son of Bernardini has never done anything wrong — whether it be in the morning or afternoon — and appears to be improving ever so slightly with every start. While his innermost post position isn’t ideal, he can be hustled out of the gate by jockey Irad Ortiz to claim a stalking position and save ground along the rail, comfortably allowing the early runners to go in front of him. The Chad Brown-trained colt will likely hope to gain command by the quarter pole, hold off any late run from his rivals and continue strongly to the wire to pick up 100 points and assure himself a spot in the Derby gate.

Brown also sends out Jerome Stakes (GIII) winner Flexibility, who looks an interesting prospect after more than two months away from racing action. He owns the distinction of finishing second twice to Moyhamen as a juvenile and has always run strongly to record his two wins and two seconds in five career starts. He’s spent the winter in chilly New York and is no doubt acclimated to the cold conditions, something that will only help him over some of his rivals shipping from warmer climates, and the son of Bluegrass Cat may post a bit of a surprise from just off the pace.

Matt King Coal rides a two-race win streak into the Gotham and, while he takes a huge step up in class, he has found a good spot to do it. He has a nose defeat in the slop last year, was an impressive five-length maiden winner and is making his second start of 2016, so may be peaking at the right time to pick up a nice chunk of the purse for owners Lady Sheila Stable, trainer Linda Rice and jockey Jose Ortiz. Stranger things have happened, after all.

Outwork shows up after a winter in Florida and a good runner-up finish in the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII) last out. Trainer Todd Pletcher’s go-to jockey, John Velazquez, could have picked any of the trainer’s Derby hopefuls to ride in any state, but selected to be aboard this one, something that speaks volumes without the Hall of Fame rider having to say a word. Outwork is another son of the hot young stallion Uncle Mo and should like the distance, if division leader and champion Nyquist’s Florida Derby (GI) romp is any indication, so expect a top effort form the Mike Repole colorbearer.

Post time for the Wood, which is the 10th on the day at Aqueduct, will be at 5:30 p.m. EDT.

Margaret Ransom
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters, Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.

After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager. She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several race horse retirement organizations, including CARMA.

Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull as her favorite horse of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, three Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.