This Saturday, three different spurs of the Kentucky Derby trail and Kentucky Oaks trail draw to a close. This piece focuses specifically on the pair of Grade 2 races in New York: the Wood Memorial and the Gazelle. In addition to the Wood and the Gazelle, Picks and Ponderings also previews two other pairs of three-year-old preps, all carded for Saturday: the Blue Grass (G2) and Ashland (G1) at Keeneland, and the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Santa Anita Oaks (G1) at the Great Race Place.
NBC Sports Network will air a telecast of the Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes, and the Wood Memorial starting at 4:30pm CDT. You can also stream these races, and all races, live on the NYRA website or through the NYRA Now mobile app with a free account. Horse Racing Radio Network will also provide live audio coverage of the Wood Memorial, in addition to the Santa Anita Derby and the stakes action at Keeneland, streaming on their website.
Race 10: Wood Memorial Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:52pm EDT
The Wood Memorial is the final step down the New York spur of the Kentucky Derby trail. The race was inaugurated at Jamaica Racetrack in 1925, and was run there through 1959. In fact, the races name keeps a part of Jamaica Racetrack alive, as Eugene Wood founded that course. Though the race was downgraded to a Grade 2 this year, it has been a rich source of Kentucky Derby winners in the past. Eleven horses have parlayed Wood into roses, including four Triple Crown winners: Gallant Fox (1930), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), and Seattle Slew (1977).
Tapit rallies from last to win the 2004 Wood Memorial. He is represented in this year's rendition as the damsire of BATTALION RUNNER.
This year, the Wood drew a field of eight to compete for a $750,000 purse and Kentucky Derby points (100-40-20-10). On top, two horses are likely to take a lot of money, and with good reason. Both are newer faces, seeking their first stakes win, but look like the types who can step up here. BATTALION RUNNER gets the slight nod. Trainer Todd Pletcher's barn has caught fire, as it so often does this time of year. He had been entered in the Florida Derby, but Pletcher (in retrospect, wisely) ran Always Dreaming there instead, and Always Dreaming has a Grade 1 win and a ticket to the Derby. BATTALION RUNNER has only won at Gulfstream, with a wire-to-wire maiden win and a pace-pressing allowance win in Hallandale Beach. He ran well enough on debut in Saratoga to suggest he won't be a just a Gulfstream Park Horse. BATTALION RUNNER also has a pedigree that should get nine furlongs and beyond, and that maiden win showed he could fire off a break.
That gets him the nod by a nose over CLOUD COMPUTING. The latter is a bit less experienced: two starts to BATTALION RUNNER's three. But, unlike that foe, CLOUD COMPUTING has stakes experience. He ran a solid second behind J Boys Echo in the Gotham (G3); that one will prove just how good he really is this Saturday as well, as he goes to a loaded rendition of the Blue Grass. CLOUD COMPUTING is proven off the pace, so will be best served if the likes of IRISH WAR CRY, BATTALION RUNNER, GLENNRICHMENT, and TRUE TIMBER all go. Still, none of that is a guarantee, and Aqueduct can be speedy on big race days. Even so, with Chad Brown and Irad Ortiz behind him, CLOUD COMPUTING should be ready, and ought to loom the big threat late.
Two others in this field are horses who had a lot of Derby buzz earlier in the year, but who seek to come back from poor races last out: MO TOWN and IRISH WAR CRY. IRISH WAR CRY ran a clunker in the Fountain of Youth (G2), though trainer Graham Motion has still not isolated why. That's a bit scary, as is the fact that he has not rated off of stakes-quality horses. With those questions -- and him likely to be the third choice in betting -- this space finds a bit more value in the other one trying to right the ship. MO TOWN, to his credit, has a win going nine panels on the Aqueduct main already; he won the Remsen (G2) last fall. He disappointed in the Risen Star (G2), his first start off the winter break, but may come back better here. Though he loses rider John Velazquez to top choice BATTALION RUNNER, he did run a solid second on debut with Javier Castellano, who will ride him in the Wood. Returning to the course and distance where he ran the best race of his life, and having already proven the ability to stalk the pace in stakes company, MO TOWN gets the nod among the horses who seek redemption.
#3 BATTALION RUNNER (2/1)
#7 CLOUD COMPUTING (5/2)
#2 MO TOWN (6/1)
Longshot: #6 STRETCH'S STONE (15/1) gets a class test here, not only facing stakes company for the first time but also stepping outside of New York-bred company for the first time. Still, he ran a solid race last time out: his first start off a two-month lay, and his first try going a route of ground. That day he crossed the wire second after some bumping, but his foe Mr. Buff was disqualified. He since franked that by winning next out. STRETCH'S STONE will be forward, but does not need the lead -- a solid style to have on a big race day at Aqueduct. STRETCH'S STONE has shown he fits with this bunch on speed, and with some sharp workouts leading into the race, he can surprise at a price here.
Race 11: Gazelle Stakes (G2), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 6:25 EDT
For many years, the Gazelle Stakes was a three-year-old's last hurrah against her age group before facing elders. Long run in late August or in September, the Gazelle was moved to November from 2009-2012, and has only been a late-season Oaks prep since 2013. In that short time since it was moved to the Oaks prep season it has not yet produced an Oaks winner, though Lewis Bay (2016) finished third behind Cathryn Sophia last year. Its best winner during its Oaks prep days, so far, was Close Hatches (2013) -- she would go on to finish second behind Beholder in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) that year, and would win the Older Female Eclipse the next year. Before its days as an Oaks prep, its winners' list was replete with sophomore fillies who starred in the distaff division, and sometimes beyond. Several retain stakes run in their honour to this very day, including Beldame (1904), Vagrancy (1942), and Gallant Bloom (1969), Forward Gal (1971), and Silverbulletday (1999).
Close Hatches bears the familiar Juddmonte colours to victory in the 2013 Gazelle Stakes.
This year's Gazelle drew a field of nine to vie for shares of a $300,000 purse, as well as Kentucky Oaks points (100-40-20-10) for the top four finishers. MISS SKY WARRIOR is the one to beat here. She has won her last four starts -- including a victory over the same course and distance in the Demoiselle (G2). She is the only horse in this field with a nine-furlong victory. She also proved in her start last out, in the Davona Dale (G2), that she can rate and rally. That will matter here, with outside-drawn STAY FOND practically certain to send, and almost everyone else in the field having done their best work on or close to the front. MISS SKY WARRIOR fits the race on speed, she keeps regular rider Paco Lopez in the irons, and she has sharp works coming into this start. A win would not surprise.
But, this space went looking for value, and found it one gate closer to the rail. LOCKDOWN has won both of her starts going two turns: a maiden victory on the Aqueduct inner, as well as a facile score in the Busanda. That Busanda win came in a field of ten, preparing her to run in a field around this size. And, rider Kendrick Carmouche returns from that effort for the Gazelle. Even LOCKDOWN's one-turn try over the Aqueduct main, on debut last November, was a second-place finish from which she moved forward. LOCKDOWN's breeding suggests she has every right to move forward when going a mile and an eighth: her full sister Close Hatches garnered her first stakes win in the 2013 Gazelle, and also won the 2014 Personal Ensign (G1) at the nine-panel distance. With a proven ability to rate and rally, and the right pedigree for this race, LOCKDOWN brims with upside.
NORTH END gets a class test here, as it will be her first start against winners -- and her first start outside of New York-bred company. But, she has been moving the right way. She was a late-running second in her sprint debut in February, then aired last month when she stretched out to a mile for the first time. Both times NORTH END stayed off the pace, a positive given that there's some speed in here. Yes, she does lose rider Irad Ortiz to (in this space's opinion, distance-challenged) challenger YORKIEPOO PRINCESS, but gets rider Javier Castellano aboard. Castellano has been solid at Aqueduct, and firing at 19% with trainer Chad Brown over the last two months. They should be ready to get the best out of NORTH END, and there is a chance she can pass this class test.
#4 LOCKDOWN (5/1)
#5 MISS SKY WARRIOR (9/5)
#8 NORTH END (7/2)
Longshot: Most of the field has shown they like to be on or near the lead. Should the pace get particularly torrid, it could set up beautifully for the one real closer in the field: #6 ASPEN HILLTOP (15/1). ASPEN HILLTOP closed well to graduate in her debut, a six and a half furlong maiden special at the Spa last summer. She returned in the Davona Dale (G2), but stumbled over the fallen Saratoga Citizen, and was not persisted with. ASPEN HILLTOP deserves another shot her at a price -- not only is she the only real closer in the field, but her pedigree gives her a chance to appreciate the stretch out in distance.