After weeks in the mostly sunny south, I looked forward to my return to springtime in New York. All week, I heard about how beautiful the weekend weather would be: perfect for both Easter and the Wood Memorial.
Saturday dawned cool and beautiful and abunduntly sunny in Brooklyn. Aqueduct experience told me that it would be cooler there than elsewhere in the city, but I nonetheless eschewed my initial choice of boots and sweater for summer shoes and sleeveless.
By the sixth race, my toes were numb, my fingers too stiff to type or tweet. The sun barely cracked the Aqueduct fog, and by late afternoon, a cloud had literally descended onto Ozone Park and we could see wet droplets sweep across the track and the infield.
Ah, Aqueduct—welcome home!
Fortunately, even brutally bad weather couldn’t dampen—or freeze—the good spirits of the crowd that turned out for Aqueduct’s biggest day of racing. Attention to racing charities was a theme of the day: the third race was named in honor of 5R Racehorse Charity Foundation, a Thoroughbred rescue group founded after the discovery of the neglected Paragallo horses, and the group held a fundraising luncheon and silent auction in Equestris, the track restaurant.
The fourth race was named for the Racetrack Chaplaincy, a nationwide organization dedicated to supporting backstretch workers, and the sixth race honored the retirement of 13-year-old Cool N Collective, who was paraded in the paddock and on the track. Cool N Collective will be retiring to Old Friends at Cabin Creek: the Bobby Frankel Division in upstate New York, near Saratoga, and Old Friends president Michael Blowen was on hand to meet his new resident. Both Old Friends and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation set up tables on the first floor of the track, raising funds for their organizations and providing information for those interested in Thoroughbred retirement.
In honor of Cool N Collective’s retirement, the New York Racing Association and Mike Repole, Cool N Collective’s owner, donated $30,000 to Old Friends, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, and the Exceller Fund. Repole said, “Everyone in the industry has a stake in this, everyone has a responsibility, because without the horses, we have no game. It doesn’t matter whether they cost $5,000 or $50,000, whether they’re three years old or ten years old. We have a responsibility to take care of all of them.”
And then the stakes began. As post time for the Bay Shore approached, a sense of nervous excitement–or was it excited nervousness?–pervaded the paddock and the rail: just how, exactly, would Eightyfiveinafifty behave in this, his first start since bolting so dangerously in the Whirlaway?
The first few hundred yards did little to calm the nerves—Eightyfiveinafifty raced with his head determinedly cocked to the left; he was on the rail, and one had the sense that he could behave unexpectedly at any moment. Jockey Ramon Dominguez settled and straightened him, and Eightyfiveinafifty ran comfortably in his usual position at the front of the field. Coming around the final turn, that head turned again; once again Dominguez straightened him out, and the comeback was complete: Eightyfiveinafifty won by two and a half, and after the race, managing owner Harold Lerner said that the horse was still being considered for the Derby, pending his performance in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs later this month. Dominguez offered a different opinion.
The Wood Memorial was a less competitive affair than had been anticipated. Awesome Act, the Gotham winner, broke badly and lost a shoe, finishing third; while Jackson Bend hung on gamely, winner Eskendereya was in another zip code when the Zito trainee crossed the wire in second place. Much to the delight of fans who came prepared, Eskendereya was a ten-length winner of the 86th Wood Memorial and emerged from the race the likely favorite for the Kentucky Derby. You can read my recap of the race in the Saratogian.
Poor Derek Ryan. Last month he ended up on the wrong end of a photo in the Tampa Bay Derby, when his Schoolyard Dreams (fourth in the Wood) was nosed out by Odysseus; last weekend, his gutsy Musket Man and Ian Wilkes’s Warrior’s Reward hit the wire noses apart (they are seen here a few steps after the wire), and once again, the photo determined that the other horse won. If you’re a “paddock player,” handicapping by looking at horses in the paddock, Warrior’s Reward was the play of the day: alert, majestic, he literally surveyed his competition before the race, and brought the same proud attitude to the winner’s circle.
Attendance for the day was 8,553, a success by Aqueduct standards, and the pool for the all-stakes $500,000 Pick 4 exceeded its guarantee. By all accounts, Wood Day 2010 was a resounding success: Just ask the folks in the NYRA gift shop, where sweatshirts were reportedly sold out by the fifth race.