This weekend, three different spurs of the Kentucky Derby trail and Kentucky Oaks trails 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 all five other three-year-old preps this weekend. Saturday also features 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. Sunday, the Oaks trail makes an encore at Keeneland with the Beaumont Stakes (G3).
Morning lines were not available for the Gazelle at original publish time. Updated Friday, April 6 to add morning lines for the Gazelle.
Saturday, April 7 - Aqueduct Racetrack
Race 6: Gazelle Stakes (G2), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 3:38pm 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, in just her third career start, wins the Gazelle comfortably. But, it was second-place Princess of Sylmar who would claim the blanket of lilies a month later.
The Gazelle Stakes drew a field of six this year. MIDNIGHT DISGUISE gets well-earled top billing among the field. She has dominated the New York spur of the Oaks trail, with daylight victories in both the Busanda and the Busher. Her Busanda victory proved she can stay the trip, as well; that was a mile and an eighth just like the Gazelle, and that makes her the only one in the field to have even tried the distance, much less won. Though she faces a field of just six, MIDNIGHT DISGUISE should get plenty of speed to chase, making her late-rallying style an asset. She has closed to win in six-horse fields in her last two starts. And, even in the unlikely circumstance that SMOKINPADDYLASSIE, SARA STREET, and perhaps even MY MISS LILLY all hang back a bit? MIDNIGHT DISGUISE has good front-end form earlier in her career, too. In short? MIDNIGHT DISGUISE will be chalk, but she looks rock-solid here.
SMOKINPADDYLASSIE is the new face on the New York circuit, but if she can bring her mid-Atlantic form to NYRA, she looks like MIDNIGHT DISGUISE's biggest threat. She comes into the Gazelle perfect in three career starts, including a pair of victories at Parx and a stakes win at Laurel. She led at every call in her two wins at Parx, but proved there that she can run well in a contested pace. SMOKINPADDYLASSIE then proved in the Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel that she can stalk and pounce. Whether she sets the pace or sits just off, she looks the best of the front-end brigade, and will likely be the one MIDNIGHT DISGUISE has to run down. Given the distance of the Gazelle, two turns is a serious question that SMOKINPADDYLASSIE still must answer, as her longest trip to date is the one-turn mile at Laurel last out. But, being by Paddy O'Prado, she could handle it if she takes after the top side of her pedigree.
SARA STREET makes her fourth career start here for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, already a two-time winner of the Gazelle. Her stakes debut came in the Busher last month, and it was credible enough: she stalked the pace, briefly struck the front, but could not hold off MIDNIGHT DISGUISE late. Though she needs to improve to beat that one here, she did show that she could stay interested from a stalking spot, as positive with some other speed in this field. And, SARA STREET should relish stretching out to two turns for the first time: she is by Street Sense, and though dam Sara Louise made a name for herself as a sprinter, she was also a graded stakes winner at two turns, as she beat Rachel Alexandra in the 2008 Pocahontas (G3).
#3 MIDNIGHT DISGUISE (8/5)
#4 SMOKINPADDYLASSIE (3/1)
#5 SARA STREET (7/2)
Longshot: We tried to get the longshot writer's attention, but they were too busy betting Gary Delong horses at Hawthorne.
Race 10: Wood Memorial Stakes (G2), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 5:55pm 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 race's name keeps a part of Jamaica Racetrack alive, as its namesake Eugene Wood founded that course. Though the race was downgraded to a Grade 2 last year, it has been a rich source of Kentucky Derby winners in the past. Eleven horses have carved Wood into roses, including four Triple Crown winners: Gallant Fox (1930), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), and Seattle Slew (1977).
Tapit may be best known nowadays for his excellence in the breeding shed, but he was also a Grade 1-winning racehorse, thanks to his victory in the 2004 Wood Memorial.
VINO ROSSO should be a bit of a price here, as he lost a lot of fans after a lackluster effort in the Tampa Bay Derby. If there's a time for him to snap back into form, it's right here. Being a son of Curlin out of a half-sister to the long-winded Commissioner, he should take well to nine furlongs. VINO ROSSO returns to the same track where he broke his maiden, so the surface should suit him well. Though the outside post is a minor concern, if VINO ROSSO can get a stalking spot early, he should be well set to kick if he's good enough. (And, his form earlier in the winter suggests that he is good enough.) Finally, the connections inspire confidence. He comes out for trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won four of the last eight editions of the race, and regular rider John Velazquez has been excellent in his intermittent forays to Aqueduct this winter.
The New York prep series has had two major players: FIRENZE FIRE and ENTICED. FIRENZE FIRE was so strong earlier in the series of preps, but two back in the Withers (G3) suggested distance limitations, and last out in the Gotham (G3) suggested he may be going off form a bit. He lacks appeal here. On the other hand, Gotham winner ENTICED (6/5) has a significant win claim here for top Aqueduct connections in Kiaran McLaughlin and Junior Alvarado. He handled the course well last out in the Gotham. Though that was a one-turn mile, the stretch out to a mile and an eighth should suit ENTICED beautifully: he is by Medaglia d'Oro out of It's Tricky, a Mineshaft mare who was a Grade 1 winner at as long as a mile and an eighth. In terms of running style? With HEARTFULLOFSTARS, OLD TIME REVIVAL, and perhaps even RESTORING HOPE quite prominent early, ENTICED will get an honest pace to track and rally into late. As long as ENTICED does not regress significantly from his Gotham effort, he has every chance to run to the money.
RESTORING HOPE is a new face in New York, and a new face in stakes company. He broke his maiden at Santa Anita in February, his third career start, and after a two-month freshening he turns up in the Wood for trainer Bob Baffert. He has shown some semblance of versatility so far, a positive. His maiden win came on a contested pace, showing he has some guts on the front. But? On debut he rallied from off the pace to miss by just a nose, and though he shouldn't be quite that far off the early going with this being a route and not a sprint, it still suggests RESTORING HOPE does not need the front end. He has been part of the Baffert shuffle this Derby prep season -- he didn't get into the Sunland Derby, and with Justify now in the Santa Anita Derby and Solomini going to the Arkansas Derby, RESTORING HOPE bears his standard in New York. Even with the relative inexperience and the difficulties in planning? If Baffert is going to the trouble to put the lightly raced horse on a plane, and if Flavien Prat is missing a stakes day at Santa Anita to ride here, RESTORING HOPE has to be primed and ready.
#9 VINO ROSSO (9/2)
#5 ENTICED (6/5)
#8 RESTORING HOPE (4/1)
Longshot: #7 KING ZACHARY (20/1) faces winners for the first time in the Wood. Though he lacks the seasoning of most of his foes, there are some positives at a massive price. After a couple of third-place finishes at sprint distances, the light came on with KING ZACHARY when he tried two turns for the first time. The extra sixteenth of a mile today should suit KING ZACHARY well, as he is by Curlin out of a Giant's Causeway mare who did her best work going long. His running style should fit, as well' he stalked and pounced in his maiden score, and that sort of trip should be an advantage here. This isn't the toughest final Derby prep from top to bottom, and if KING ZACHARY takes a reasonable step forward from his maiden score, he can get a piece at a big price.
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