The road to the 2017 Kentucky Derby is strewn with horses that stood in the path of Todd Pletcher's army.
Since last year's class turned 3, the powerful trainer has fanned out across the land and laid waste to the division, winning four important Triple Crown prep races, while finishing second in three others and third twice.
On Saturday, Pletcher returns to his New York base after a winter in Florida to run favorite Battalion Runner and graded stakes-placed Bonus Points in the 93rd running of the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets for 3 years olds at 1 1/8 miles on the main track at Aqueduct.
The Wood, which drew a field of eight, highlights the most important day of racing at the Big A, with five graded stakes worth a combined $1.85 million.
NBC Sports Network will provide live coverage of the Wood Memorial in a two-hour broadcast from 5:30-7:30, along with the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park. Post time for the Wood Memorial is scheduled for 5:50.
The day also features the Wood Memorial Challenge, a $500 buy-in, live money tournament, in which horseplayers can compete for prize money as well as one seat in the 2017 Belmont Stakes Challenge in June and two seats in the 2018 National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas. Sign-up ends Thursday at 5 p.m.
The most recent Kentucky Derby winner to come out of the Wood Memorial was Funny Cide in 2003, and the last horse to win both races was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. Many Wood winners rank among racing's most important horses of the past 30 years, including Broad Brush, Gulch, Easy Goer, Unbridled's Song, Fusaichi Pegasus, Empire Maker and Tapit.
Battalion Runner descends from two of those – sire Unbridled's Song and the Tapit mare Tamboz – and Pletcher hopes the 2-1 morning-line favorite can become his fifth Wood winner. The trainer has swept four of the past seven with Eskendereya (2010), Gemologist (2012), Verrazano (2013) and Outwork (2016).
“It's New York's premier prep for the Kentucky Derby, so it's a race on our radar each year,” Pletcher said. “So, we try to pick out a horse that will fit from a timing perspective.”
Battalion Runner is owned by the St. Elias stable of Vincent and Teresa Viola, who co-own Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming, also trained by Pletcher.
“The reason Battalion Runner is in the Wood is it's a race [the Violas] hold in high regard,” Pletcher said. “That they have common ownership with Always Dreaming makes it easy to split them up.”
With only three races in his career, Battalion Runner makes his stakes debut in the Wood. Like other 3-year-olds in Pletcher's overflowing operation, Battalion Runner had minor physical problems after his debut as a youngster that led Pletcher to delay his development. The prudence paid off.
In the colt's two starts this past winter at Gulfstream Park, Battalion Runner broke his maiden by 8 ¾ lengths in December and then scored a powerful victory over the promising Beasley in a hard-fought allowance race on February 3. That outing was the colt's first route race after two sprints.
“I thought he ran well his first time around two turns,” Pletcher said. “Beasley is a highly regarded horse. I felt like he finished up well, and those two were pretty far clear of the third-place horse. It was a productive race for him and he showed the ability to stretch out in distance.”
The field for the Wood is filled with runners that like to be on or near the lead, with the lone exception, perhaps, being Pletcher's other entrant, 20-1 long shot Bonus Points, and 5-2 second choice Cloud Computing. Pletcher, coming off a dominating meet at Gulfstream Park, sees Battalion Runner as tractable enough to deal with the pace pressure.
“He's a horse with good tactical speed, so we're not going to look to take away something that comes easy to him … [He] doesn't have to have the lead,” Pletcher said. “We'll see how the race unfolds once the gate opens, but I wouldn't anticipate seeing him too far off of it.”
Cloud Computing has only raced twice, but he commands deep respect in the Wood for Chad Brown, the Eclipse Champion Trainer of 2016.
Off a six-furlong debut victory on February 11 on the inner track at Aqueduct, Cloud Computing went straight into the Grade 3 Gotham and finished a strong second behind J Boys Echo, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 96.
Despite the brief resume, Brown believes the son of MacLean's Music is ready to run his best in the Wood and perhaps move on to the Kentucky Derby after only three starts.
“He would definitely have to be bucking history; there is a reason horses have been successful in this race with a foundation at 2,” Brown said. “But this horse is so talented, and he deserves a chance to put himself in the conversation.
“It's an ever-changing sport. Things change over time,” he added. “Sometimes horses get on a conventional path to big races. I'm patient by nature with horses. He comes into the Wood off of five weeks rest. It looks like there is enough speed on paper to create an honest race. Cloud Computing will have to run his career best to win, but we have a horse coming in the right way.”
Irad Ortiz, Jr. picks up the mount for the race.
Two horses in the Wood looking to restore lost luster are Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes winner Irish War Cry and Mo Town, who won the Grade 2 Remsen last fall and is the only horse entered with a victory on Aqueduct's main track.
In the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, Irish War Cry shocked 2-year-old champion Classic Empire and the streaking star Gunnevera, easily winning gate-to-wire by 3 ¾ lengths and earning a 101 Beyer Speed Figure, tops in the Wood field.
In his subsequent start, however, the son of Curlin chased the strong pace set by Three Rules in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes and disintegrated, finishing seventh, beaten 21 ¾ lengths.
The performance baffled trainer Graham Motion, who won the Wood with Toby's Corner in 2011.
“My theory is he probably bounced a little off the Holy Bull,” Motion said. “That track was a little cuppy and drying out a little. That's the only explanation I've come up with. I didn't see anything wrong with him. He seemed like himself and he hasn't missed anything since.”
Motion has attempted to reset his colt, 7-2 on the morning line, the past two weeks at the Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. Calm in the morning but keen in the afternoon, Irish War Cry will run with a Figure 8 bridle for more manageability in the race and a new jockey in Rajiv Maragh.
“It's important for him to be able to settle in a race like this,” Motion said. “[The Figure 8] makes him a little more manageable and gives a little bit more control. Clearly he has to run a lot better than in the Fountain of Youth to stay on this road.”
Mo Town entered his 3-year-old season as one of the most highly regarded colts in the country, but he fell quickly into the second tier when a listless fifth as the 3-2 favorite in the Grade 2 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds.
Trainer Tony Dutrow said Mo Town didn't run anything like himself in that race, clipping his hind legs and tiring in the lane. Now, Dutrow said, the colt has one shot – the Wood – to get things right to make the Kentucky Derby.
“Is he a contender for the Kentucky Derby? He has everything to prove,” Dutrow said of Mo Town, who is 6-1 on the morning line. “I thought he was well accomplished as a 2-year-old, both physically and mentally. I felt he was very intelligent and professional. I still do. He still got something out of the Risen Star. If he improves and runs well in the Wood Memorial, he has a chance of improving into the Kentucky Derby.”
Trainer Bruce Levine is sending Stretch's Stone out of the protection of New York-bred company into the Wood off a strong second-place finish in a $75,000 optional-claiming race on February 24 at Aqueduct. The Belmont Park-based son of Bustin Stones, 15-1 on the morning line, started from the outside post in a field of 10 in that 1 1/16-mile race and went on an adventure. He stumbled at the start, made the lead, lost it, and then rallied to be beaten by only a neck.
Stretch's Stone hadn't raced since December 18 before then and had missed training because of a foot bruise. The performance validated Levine's belief in the horse and gave him nothing but confidence.
“With very little training last time he ran an 85 Beyer,” Levine said. “He came out of the 10 hole, stumbled and he had every right in the world to get tired. Now I've been able to train him. I have four works in him. I'm happy about that. I've been pointing for [the Wood] since right after that. You might as well take a shot.”
True Timber, 12-1, owned by Calumet Farm, enters off a fifth-place finish in the Gotham after a third in the Grade 3 Jerome and second in the Grade 3 Withers this past winter on Aqueduct's inner track.
In the Gotham, the son of Mineshaft hounded heavy favorite El Areeb and both runners paid the price, finishing well beaten.
“We're going to throw that race out and hope we rebound and hope we run well,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “We have a change of jockeys – Paco Lopez is going to ride. He's doing very well. We thought we'd give him one more try.”
Glennrichment, 15-1, who scored a front-running, 4 ¼-length maiden win on March 5, completes the field. The son of Pioneerof the Nile is trained by Rudy Rodriguez for Zayat Stables.
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