This weekend is the weekend four weeks out with seven races yielding points to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. And they're the balance of this week's coverage at Picks & Ponderings. All seven preps are covered in our divide-and-conquer format; so be sure to also check out the other previews. Nicolle Neulist tackles the Fantasy Stakes from Oaklawn, Paul Mazur is also covering the SantaAnita Derby and Santa Anita Oaks from Santa Anita. Lastly, Nicolle Neulist is also covering the Blue grass and Ashland from Keeneland.
After months of racing on the inner dirt oval, racing on the New York circuit stays at Aqueduct but moves to the main track that encircles the inner dirt and the turf course. Like the opening of Keeneland, main track racing (with the return of voice Larry Collmus) at the Big A is another sign of Spring. This Saturday of main track racing at Aqueduct features a quintet of stakes, but this piece only looks at two of them. Both are restricted to three-year-olds, the G1 Wood and the G2 Gazelle. And both sophomore races are picked and pondered below.
The Wood Memorial is also part of the Big Apple/Bluegrass Pick 4. The all graded-stakes sequence spans both Aqueduct and Keeeneland. Two races from Aqueduct, the G3 Bay Shore and the G1 Wood; and two from Keeneland, the G1 Madison and the GI Blue Grass comprise this quartet. The wager (Bay Shore, Madison, Wood, Blue Grass) will have a fifty-cent base and a 19% takeout rate - the same as Keeneland's pick fours.
The Wood Memorial, as well as the Gazelle, are also part of a $500,000 guaranteed all graded-stakes pick four at Aqueduct. That wager is solely from Aqueduct (Gazelle, Bay Shore, Wood, G1 Carter), spans races 8-11, and carries a fifty-cent base.
NBC Sports Network (NBCSN) will provide live televised coverage of the Wood Memorial, along with the Santa Anita Derby in a program to air live from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm ET. Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN) will provide live radio coverage of the Wood, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Blue Grass) in a program to air from 4:00 pm to 7:30 pm ET on Sirius 93 and its site. NYRA.com also offers HD video of these, and all NYRA races, on their website; accessing this video requires creating a free account.
All races in this piece are scheduled for Saturday April 9. Morning line odds for the Gazelle Stakes were not available at original publish time, but were added on April 7.
Aqueduct -- Race 8 -- G2 Gazelle Stakes -- One and one-eighth miles on dirt -- post time 4:16 pm ET
Once upon a time, the Gazelle Stakes was an early Fall fixture at Belmont and as such, typically around one turn. It was an intermediate race between the Alabama or Test at Saratoga and taking on elders in a race like the Beldame. In 2009 the race moved from Belmont to Aqueduct and from Fall to early winter, on the Thanksgiving weekend card. In 2013, the race moved again, to give Aqueduct a straightforward Kentucky Oaks prep. This year, a 100-40-20-10 allotment of Kentucky Oaks points and $300,000 in purse funds are on the line in the Gazelle. In its first year as a Spring race, Close Hatches (2013) would win the Mother Goose and Cotillion while second-place finisher Princess of Sylmar annexed the Oaks. 2014 Gazelle heroine My Miss Sophia was the Kentucky Oaks runner-up. While the early returns are productive on it as an Oaks prep, a nod must be made to the past heroines of the Gazelle in its pre-Aqueduct life. Limiting that list of heroines to current stakes namesakes gives a list like Beldame (1904), Vagrancy (1942), and Gallant Bloom (1969), Forward Gal (1971), and Silverbulletday (1999).
Close Hatches winning the 2013 Gazelle Stakes. As a four-year-old in 2014, she would be the Champion Older Female.
The rail was a magical, wonderful place when Fair Grounds ran its February preps for three-year-olds, the G2 Rachel Alexandra and the G2 Risen Star. With a favorable inside bias, it created a longshot winner in the fillies' race and a chance for a bet-back. Presenting ROYAL OBSESSION, who sports Stonestreet silks and comes from the Steve Asmussen barn. ROYAL OBSESSION was in the outermost post when the latch sprang last out in New Orleans, was wide all the way around, wide in the turn, and still managed to make up ground turning for home. Toss in a speed figure progression and this space will circle Manny Franco's mount in the Gazelle. She boasts two other wins on the resume, a maiden score at Churchill and an N1X score at Fair Grounds. ROYAL OBSESSION's pace style is to come from off the pace, but worries about getting pace aren't that strong with genuine speed in CLAIR DE LUNE and stretchout BEHRNIK's bank to make some kind of honest pace up front. LEWIS BAY closed her 2014 with a win in the G2 Demoiselle, a race over the same nine furlongs at Aqueduct trip as the Gazelle. LEWIS BAY started her sophomore campaign last out in the G2 Davona Dale at Gulfstream, where she was trounced by Cathryn Sophia - perhaps the best filly of the East and the odds-on favorite in the Ashland. LEWIS BAY gets the favorable second-off-the-layoff scenario, and her figure at three in the Davona Dale matched what she earned in a slow-paced Demoiselle (final time was 1:53 2/5), There's also no Cathryn Sophia in this field for her to chase, either. MO D'AMOUR won around two turns last time in this race's local prep - the Busher Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth over the inner dirt. Two back she won at a one-turn mile at Laurel. You'll likely find MO D"AMOUR to take money, given it's the popular and successful Pletcher/Velazquez team, and that the speed figures haven't gone down in the career. While she matched her figure at Laurel last time over the inner dirt, she fits if she runs back to it.
#5 ROYAL OBSESSION (5/1)
#2 LEWIS BAY (8/5)
#3 MO D'AMOUR (6/1)
Longshot: No amount of lush greenery, gentle piano music, or references to Amen Corner can get me to pull the trigger on something in this field.
Aqueduct -- Race 10 -- G1 Wood Memorial -- One and one-eighth miles on dirt -- post time 5:30 pm ET
The final New York prep to the Kentucky memorializes Eugene Wood, whose life and descendants are sketched in T. Genaro's piece for Thoroughbred Commentary. The Wood Memorial carries a purse of a million dollars. Like the Blue Grass (that's also on national TV), it carries the 100-40-20-10 payout of Kentucky Derby points as well. Pending prior nomination, the winner and second-place runner - should they want it - advance to the Kentucky Derby in roughly a month. In recent years, the Wood has been an unproductive prep race. Since 1984 eight horses have won the Wood and not even made the starting at the Kentucky Derby. Not since Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) has any horse won the Wood and then the Kentucky Derby. But in the past, the Wood was quite the productive prep. Eleven horses have taken down the Wood Memorial-Kentucky Derby double. Of them, four went to be Triple Crown winners - Gallant Fox (1930), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), and Seattle Slew (1977).
Fusaichi Pegasus winning the 2000 Wood Memorial. A month later he would he win the Kentucky Derby.
Sunday allowances at Aqueduct on the inner track don't get many eyeballs, but one on March 6, a day after the Gotham Stakes, gathered a lot of eyeballs. There, MATT KING COAL bested Blue Grass Stakes entrant MY MAN SAM in a race many felt was at worst equal, if not better than the Gotham. But while the race did rank higher on figures, we're not picking MATT KING COAL because he supposedly ran better a day after the Gotham. This space feels that OUTWORK, drawn in the outermost post with saddletowel eight, is caught between a rock and a hard place. If he tries for the lead he's gotta to gun it from the outside post and expend a fair bit of energy - something he didn't have to do when setting zippy fractions in the Tampa Bay Derby. If he takes back, he could show a rating gear that hasn't been demonstrated - but taking 5/2 on such a proposition isn't all that promising. Should he take back, that puts MATT KING COAL clear on the lead. Should he go for the lead, there's that excess expended energy. This takes us back to MATT KING COAL - whether Pletcher tries to rate OUTWORK or engages, he can go as quick as OUTWORK to the front or get the free and clear lead that OUTWORK doesn't want. In any case, we're selling OUTWORK and buying MATT KING COAL - thinking the outside post dooms the former and makes the latter able to either skate away on a clear lead or repel the others. Jose Ortiz has the call for Linda Rice. Sometimes what happens at Gulfstream stays at Gulfstream, and SHAGAF showed he can take his Florida exploits on the road when he won the Gotham. The Gotham was a day where a favorable rail was in effect, and while he draws the rail here - you have to wonder (after all, Fair Grounds did this indirectly vis-a-vis the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby) that they make the rail not so golden. In any case, SHAGAF deserves respect if MATT KING COAL and OUTWORK go in a front end duel and/or MATT KING COAL doesn't have a passing gear. SHAGAF also brings along Irad Ortiz to ride, and Circle the Ortiz and You Win is often the way to play the Big A. SHAGAF doesn't need the lead, but he'll get a target, maybe two, to hunt down in this field. Sometimes three-year-olds turn the corner and evolve in spurts. Perhaps ADVENTIST gets to grow up here. He hated the whip two back in the Withers and earned a "greenly" comment from the chartcaller. Last out he was against the grain in the three path and still made up ground. Perhaps with an inside post and some maturity, he can make some noise.
#6 MATT KING COAL (3/1)
#1 SHAGAF (2/1)
#2 ADVENTIST (10/1)
Longshot: This time we do pull the trigger on a 30/1 shot. One speed ensures a target, but the best hopes are if the two speeds get locked into a duel. At least there's pace, so perhaps maiden #3 TROJAN NATION (30/1) will get something to chase. Perhaps the west is best this year (Danzing Candy, Cupid, Nyquist) in the prep races, and if you think west beats east then you think TROJAN NATION has been chasing better. But with a maiden getting what it needs with pace, getting a fresh place, and having a competent longshot rider in Aaron Gryder to boot him home - there are signs of hope from this Peter Miller trainee even though there's a big goose egg in the win column.
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