Brian’s Derby preps: The Wood Memorial

With three preps this weekend, we’ll space out the analysis, starting today with Brian’s look at the Wood Memorial. Don’t forget that you can check out Brian’s handicapping for NYRA races at horseplayernow.com. He’ll also be participating in “Countdown to the Crown” live chats every Friday at 2 pm, accessible from the main page of the site, chatting for an hour about anything and everything for three-year-olds.

And…don’t forget to activate your power horses for this weekend’s Derby preps. With several big races and lots of big names in action, you want to get all the points you can! –Teresa

The Wood Memorial is a sure sign that spring is in the air and that the Kentucky Derby is on the horizon. Aqueduct’s centerpiece highlights a tremendous card and will no doubt send several runners on to the May 1 Derby. South Florida hotshot Eskendereya tries to duplicate his smashing Fountain of Youth win, European invader Awesome Act looks to prove his Gotham win was no fluke and Schoolyard Dreams tries to toss his hat into the ring. Let’s take a look.

Aqueduct: The Grade I, $750,000 Wood Memorial at 1 1/8 miles

1. Most Happy Fella: Give him credit, he’s shown that that 45-1 shocker in January was no fluke by running quite well in his last two starts, but at the same time, this is the GI Wood Memorial we’re talking about here, people. With his tidy rail draw and early speed, he’ll be in front for a bit, but when the big boys come calling, let’s hope that he realizes he’s a lap down and moves out of the way; deserving longshot.

2. Awesome Act: That was some show this European-based colt put on in the Gotham when he drew off with ease in his first dirt start and first start since the BC Juvenile Turf last November. If you want to say he didn’t beat much, that’s acceptable (third place finisher Nacho Friend was abysmal in Sunday’s GIII Sunland Derby), but the way he did it says the margin could have been three times as much if Leparoux wanted. The Gotham was over the sometimes- quirky inner dirt (we’re on the main now, thankfully) and he is a bounce candidate off such a huge run, but after watching the way he dealt with trouble on the turn and then leveled off in the lane, it’s hard not to think he’s a major player right back; logical win candidate.

3. Eskendereya: Simply stunning in his Fountain of Youth win at GP over today’s distance when he just ran away and hid on the turn and poured it on late. There are a few different schools of thought about that win: one, he’s just that good and is in a class by himself since being stretched to two turns; or two, he got all the best of it that day stalking an overmatched turf horse on a speed-favoring track in a race that had no accomplished closers to run him down. Both points have their merits, and the water no doubt gets much deeper today, but even if you want to be difficult and fall into the latter school of thought, you still have to admit that his Fountain of Youth was a sight to behold. It’s worth noting that his connections did pass on the Florida Derby to run here, so maybe he didn’t bounce back the way they liked (though Zayat said it was more to do with spacing to the Derby). And don’t forget that the Derby is obviously the main goal, so you have wonder how cranked he really is. But the other side of the coin says that he’s yet to win a GI and that would be mighty important, especially for an owner that could use a few extra dollars these days, so he’s probably ready to deliver a winning performance. I’m not totally believing the FOY win, but I’m also not going to sit here and say it wasn’t an awesome performance. At 3-5 I’ll try and beat him, simply because there’s more value elsewhere, while readily admitting he’s the most likely winner; looks tough to deny.

4. Schoolyard Dreams: If you didn’t see his second place run in the TB Derby, go back and watch his move on the turn; it’s the type that wins the roses in Louisville in four weeks time (think Real Quiet). And if that move had been timed better on that day, he’d have won that GIII for fun. But it wasn’t and he didn’t, and that’s why Ramon’s on his back today and that’s why he needs a solid run just to make the big dance. Trainer Ryan showed last year with Musket Man that he knows what he’s doing with a top 3YO, and ever since this colt added blinkers two back, he’s been a new and improved–and much faster–horse. Has the benefit of drawing outside the heavy favorite, which should allow Dominguez to track the entire way while putting the pressure on and monitoring the situation, so there are some big positives there. Based on that push-button acceleration and Ryan’s quotes that the colt pulls up when he makes the lead, look for Dominguez to wait until the stretch to try and win this thing. He’s not getting the publicity of the top choices, but that run at Tampa says that this is a special colt just waiting to bust out and announce himself as a serious 3YO; thinking today’s the day.

5. Jackson Bend: For a second there you thought that he was going to make a race of it on the far turn in the FOY, but then Eskendereya looked over and broke his heart before running off. And all kidding aside, that’s something he’ll have to put out of his mind when he enters the starting gate today. Freshman sensation has had a rough go of it against better company as a sophomore and it sure isn’t getting any easier today at a trip that might be a bit out of his range. He needs earnings to make the Derby and you know LaPenta wants to show up at the Big Dance, so there’s no doubt Nick has him cranked for his best, just not sure that’s good enough; passing.

6. Carnivore: Mattress Mac never likes to back down from a fight, so he shows up here with a well-bred runner that’s fresh off a maiden win at Laurel. He did run away in the lane that day and is bred for the trip, but this is a monumental jump in class for a runner that was making his first career start two months to the day of this GI; far too much too soon.

How the race might be run: With just six runners, the Wood figures to shake out as a jockey’s race, especially when you consider that all the big players have an abundance of tactical speed. Going into the first turn, Most Happy Fella should be on the lead, if for no other reason than that his inside draw and the fact that theft is probably his only chance to pull a shocker. Look for Eskendereya to pull a one-over harness trip, with Schoolyard Dreams tracking close behind. The wildcard is Jackson Bend, because even with just six starters, post five is a real problem going 9F’s on the main track, especially when the four runners inside all have enough speed to hang you out to dry going into the first turn. Calvin Borel has a horse with enough speed to get position, should he want to use him going into the turn, but there’s a fine line there because it could very well zap some power late. Regardless, Jackson Bend will be part of the first group as things shake out down the backside. Awesome Act could be in the catbird seat, with Leparoux electing to take back and monitor the proceedings up front before determining the best time to make a move, and Carnivore should be hoping to pick up some pieces from the back of the pack.

Eskendereya should take over from an overmatched Most Happy Fella at some point on the backside and from there the race should really begin to take shape. Expect Jackson Bend to try to keep up with his Florida rival, like he did in the FOY, and follow him into the far turn. Schoolyard Dreams should still be biding his time in behind, along with Awesome Act, who won’t be far off either.

As they turn for home, Eskendereya will probably try to gut the field, again as he did in the FOY. Jackson Bend figures hard-pressed to keep up, and Schoolyard Dreams and Awesome Act figure to be in full flight and moving on Eskendereya. If he gets another easy trip without pressure from behind, Eskendereya will be hard to beat in the lane, but I’m thinking he’ll have a few more moves to fend off this time and could succumb to Schoolyard Dreams’ better timed ride, with Awesome Act back in third. Well, that’s one guy’s thinking anyway.

No matter whom you like, this really does shape up as a terrific renewal of the Wood, and it’s quite possible we could all be in for a tremendous stretch run.

Selections:

4. Schoolyard Dreams
3. Eskendereya
2. Awesome Act

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