This afternoon’s field in the $1 million Wood Memorial Stakes puts forth several top candidates with the potential to be standing in the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May in Louisville.
The race last laid the groundwork for a Kentucky Derby winner in 2000 when Fusaichi Pegasus backed up the win at Aqueduct to wear the roses at Churchill Downs.
Eleven horses and their connections will try to end that streak as the biggest field since 2004 invades the Big A in the Wood. It is the final major prep race in New York, offering 170 Kentucky Derby points with 100 going to the winner and 40-20-10 points to the next three finishers. The top two finishers are all but assured to earn a berth in the gate for the Kentucky Derby on May 3. The race will be televised nationally by the NBC Sports Network at 5:30 p.m.
While the Wood hasn’t generated a Derby winner lately, it has produced five Triple Crown winners, four of which won the Aqueduct spring meet’s biggest race. The only Wood runner to win the Triple Crown without winning the prep was Secretariat, who finished third in the 1973 edition of the race to become the most famous loser of the race.
This year’s race features two runners that have been going head-to-head since the year began. Samraat (7-2), who drew the No. 8 post, has defeated his rival Uncle Sigh (5-1) in both of the local preps run this winter on the inner track at Aqueduct. He won the Grade 3 Withers by a length and the Grade 3 Gotham in a photo finish by a neck. Both prep races were run at 1 1/16-miles, wherein today’s race will be run at 1∂-miles.
Samraat has already accumulated 60 qualifying points and sits in seventh place on the leader board for one of the precious 20 starting gates. New York based-trainer Richard Violette Jr. set aside the fact that he’s most likely already in the Derby and doesn’t need the points when discussing his chances in the Wood. “There’s no question we want to win – it’s a $1 million race, it’s a Grade 1, it’s in our backyard. Our objective is to run our ‘A’ race without leaving everything on the table, which is greedy, but then, everyone is in the same boat.”
Both Samraat and Uncle Sigh are attempting to become the second New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby. Funny Cide, the first New York-bred to win the Derby in 2003, finished second to Empire Maker in that year’s Wood.
Uncle Sigh’s trainer, Gary Contessa, thinks the rivalry with Samraat is good for racing.
“I think this is a great rivalry for New Yorkers,” Contessa told the racing media earlier in the week. “If you go back to the first fight of 'Rocky,’ they raised those banners; one is of Rocky and one is of Apollo Creed side by side. They’ve done that at Aqueduct with a huge 20-by-20 banner for each horse. It’s fantastic and very good for the sport.”
Contessa also feels that his horse has the home field advantage with Uncle Sigh being stabled at Belmont.
“He doesn’t have to van up from Florida like Social Inclusion,” Contessa said. “He doesn’t have to fly up from Florida, like Harpoon and Samraat. He just has to go 10 minutes from Belmont to Aqueduct. There’s some sort of advantage there; how much of an advantage, I don’t know.”
While these two horses have been the top 3-year-olds running in New York, neither was made the morning line favorite. That distinction was bestowed on Rontos Racing Stable’s Social Inclusion (2-1), who will be running in just his third career race. He comes out of a Gulfstream allowance race where he defeated the highly regarded Honor Code by 10 lengths. Despite drawing the outside gate in the Wood, he is the one to beat. Sired by Pioneer of the Nile, Social Inclusion shipped up from Florida and has Woodbine-based jockey Luis Contreras on board.
After winning his first two races by a combined 17ø lengths, the colt’s owner quickly changed plans. “Our plan was to come here for the Wood and then go directly to the Preakness, but last time he ran so good we started thinking about the Derby and the Triple Crown,” said Ronald Sanchez, owner of Rontos Racing Stables. “This horse is really special. If you see the workouts he does, he’s floating. He’s a classy horse and you have to give him a chance. We respect all the horses, but we’re not scared of anybody.”
There appears to be plenty of pace in the race as Social Inclusion will likely go right to the lead with the two New York-breds staying close in stalking position. One horse that should not be overlooked is Kristo (6-1), a son of Distorted Humor, who ships in from California for trainer John Sadler. His work tab is showing some solid workouts so he is coming into the race very fit and has an excellent rider in Martin Garcia aboard.
Todd Pletcher, winning trainer of three of the last four Wood Memorials, is in the peculiar position of saddling an 8-1 shot, Harpoon, who will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. Pletcher has been on fire on this year’s Derby trail, so ignore his horses at your own peril.
Post Time outlook: 1 – Samraat; 2 – Social Inclusion; 3 – Uncle Sigh
The $1 million Santa Anita Derby will also be featured on today’s NBC Sports Network’s 90-minute broadcast, and it will feature three top California colts seeking an opportunity to run for the roses on the first Saturday in May. California Chrome (6-5), Candy Boy (9-5) and Hoppertunity (3-1) lead a field of eight at Santa Anita Park going postward at 6:30 p.m. ET. The last Santa Anita Derby winner to wear the roses was I’ll Have Another in 2012, ending a 23-year drought.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.