The Wood Memorial is one of the older races on the racing calendar, having first been run in 1925; it’s named for Eugene D. Wood, a New York politician (in the truest sense of that phrase, unfortunately) and member of the Metropolitan Jockey Club, which opened the old Jamaica racetrack in 1903.
The most recent winner of the Wood to go on to win the Kentucky Derby is Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000; last year’s winner, I Want Revenge, was likely to have been the latest in a line of Wood winners to go to the Derby starting gate as the favorite, but an injury resulted in I Want Revenge being scratched the morning of the race. Other Wood winners who have been favored in the Derby are Easy Goer (who finished second to Sunday Silence in 1989), Damascus (1967), Bold Ruler (1957), and Native Dancer (1953). Notable horses that have captured the Wood/Derby double are Triple Crown winners Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), and Seattle Slew (1977).
Despite its small field of six, this year’s Wood Memorial has shaped as one of this season’s more interesting Derby preps. One of two horses considered at this point a Derby favorite, Todd Pletcher’s Eskendereya, passed on last week’s Florida Derby to try this spot after his visually impressive eight-length win in the Fountain of Youth. Eskendereya has won comfortably won three of his last four races; the loss came in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which one might throw out, given that it was run over a synthetic surface and that Eskendereya is three-for-three on dirt.
In winning last month’s Gotham, Awesome Act overcame a lack of experience on dirt; a four-month layoff; and a transatlantic flight. He’s been training at Belmont since then, and in this race tries to prove that his victory in the Gotham was more than just a win over a weak field. He faces much tougher competition in this spot.
Most Happy Fella comes back after a win over the inner track in an allowance/optional claimer on March 19th. This is his first stakes attempt in a nine-race career and he is likely to be the race’s pacesetter, though it’s hard to see him hanging in there at the end. Carnivore is a lightly-raced Mid-Atlantic shipper who’s hit the board in each of his three starts, all of which were maiden races. He won his last well after breaking a step slow and racing three wide; he’s improved as the distance has gotten longer, but this represents a huge step up for him.
The Derby trail’s not the Derby trail without a handful of Nick Zito starters; last week Zito took the Florida Derby with the lightly regarded Ice Box, and this week he comes back with the horse who came to him as a Derby prospect last fall. Jackson Bend dominated in state-restricted races at Calder as a two-year-old, winning five of six starts. He’s been second in his two Derby preps and makes his first start outside Florida in the Wood. He’s never been worse than second, but his most recent second-place finish was eight and a half lengths behind Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth. Jeremy Rose is off and Calvin Borel gets the mount, which seems an unusual choice for Zito, but one clearly made with an eye on the Kentucky Derby: Zito named Borel a month ago, locking up a jockey who knows the Churchill strip and who owns two wins in the Derby.
Schoolyard Dreams showed guts and heart when beaten a nostril hair by Odysseus in the Tampa Bay Derby. He’s hit the board in all five lifetime starts; both of his second-place finishes have come in stakes races, and his second to Rule in the Sam Davis seems a little less impressive now, given Rule’s third-place finish last week in the Florida Derby. Jeremy Rose lost this mount, too, replaced by Ramon Dominguez; the availability of Dominguez was a major factor in trainer Derek Ryan’s decision to run Schoolyard Dreams in this spot.
– Teresa Genaro, Brooklyn Backstretch