OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Light on experience and seemingly long on potential, eight 3-year-olds with mostly modest accomplishments will try to take the next step toward the Kentucky Derby in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
Five of the eight runners have made four starts or fewer, including probable favorite Shagaf, who improved to 3 for 3 by winning Grade 3 Gotham Stakes last month over Aqueduct’s inner track. His stablemate Flexibility won the Grade 3 Jerome in January, making him the only other graded stakes winner in this field. Flexibility has competed in four graded stakes.
Outwork, the Tampa Bay Derby runner-up in his third start, and Matt King Coal, a good-looking allowance winner on March 6, have the potential to be very good horses. They also have the potential to hook up early in the Wood as the two primary speed horses in the 1 1/8-mile race.
“We don’t really know how well he’s going to rate yet,” said Linda Rice, the trainer of Matt King Coal. “I don’t know when we’ll find out the answer to that question. I don’t know that it will be Saturday.”
In three starts on dirt, Matt King Coal has two wins and a nose loss and three Beyer Speed Figures of 93 or above. The rest of the field combined has three Beyers of 90 or above.
Outwork debuted a year ago this month, winning a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race at Keeneland. He was sidelined due to physical issues common to 2-year-olds before making a winning 3-year-old debut sprinting at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 13. He stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in the March 12 Tampa Bay Derby, setting the pace before succumbing late to his stablemate Destin, who was making his third two-turn start.
“I thought it was a big effort,” said Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Outwork. “He only had the one race this year and had a lot of time between the first two. It took a track-record performance to beat him.”
Pletcher won the Wood Memorial three times in four years from 2010-13. In 2011, he sent out 1-9 favorite Uncle Mo, who finished third. Uncle Mo is the sire of Outwork, owned and bred by Mike Repole, who also owned Uncle Mo.
Adventist, third in the Withers and Gotham stakes, could jump into the Derby mix with an improved performance Saturday. Trainer Leah Gyarmati believes Adventist has improved since his Gotham effort and will appreciate the nine furlongs of the Wood.
Trainer Barclay Tagg has won the Wood twice and finished second in 2003 with Funny Cide, who is the last horse to come out of the Wood and win the Kentucky Derby. Tagg sends outTale of S’avall, a son of 2008 Wood winner Tale of Ekati.
California shippers Trojan Nation, who is a maiden, and Dalmore, a maiden winner who is not nominated to the Triple Crown, complete the field.
The Wood goes as race 10 on a 12-race card that begins at 12:20 p.m. Eastern. It is part of two pick four wagers: an all-graded-stakes pick four that starts with the eighth race and includes the Gazelle, Bay Shore, and Carter, and a national all-graded-stakes pick four that includes the Bay Shore as well as the Madison and Blue Grass from Keeneland.
The weather forecast is not appealing for Saturday, with temperatures in the low 40s and an 80 percent chance of rain possibly changing to snow in the afternoon.
Shagaf, by Bernardini
While he did overcome a speed bias to win the Gotham by 1 1/4 lengths, he rode a golden rail most of the way before tipping out in the stretch.
Trainer Chad Brown believes the experience of taking dirt in that race and in his six-length maiden win here last November will serve Shagaf well, considering that he breaks from the rail.
Brown also sees the horse being close to the pace if it fails to develop.
“He’s very adaptable to the pace,” Brown said. “I believe he’ll place himself where he needs to be.”
Outwork, by Uncle Mo
Made all the pace before yielding late to stablemate Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Breaks from the outside post in the eight-horse field, which could give jockey John Velazquez options on where to place the colt early.
“I think he’s going to be forwardly placed, but I don’t think he’s the kind that has to have the lead,” Pletcher said. “He’s got good tactical speed, but he’s a good-minded horse. You can place him where you want.”
Matt King Coal, by Cool Coal Man
Last 3 Beyers: 97-96-93
Forced to miss the Jerome and Withers during the winter due to an illness.
Rice chose to run him in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race March 6 instead of the Gotham the previous day because she thought it would be easier. Matt King Coal beat My Man Sam by a length, earning a 97 Beyer.
“The race did him a lot of good, more than I could do in a workout,” Rice said. “He’s had two solid breezes since then. I’m pretty happy where we are coming into the race. Is he good enough? We’ll find that out Saturday.”