Several of our contestants made a huge move last weekend in the Derby preps, and I’m not even talking about the horses. Sure, Constitution went from zero to 100 in winning the Florida Derby and earning a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, but some of our charity league players were equally impressive, notably John Perotti, who cruised to the front with points from Constitution, Cairo Prince, Intense Holiday, and Vicar’s in Trouble. Full standings are here, and there’s plenty of opportunity for big moves this weekend, too.
Brian Nadeau of Horseplayer Now will be back later today with a look at the Santa Anita Derby, but we kick off the weekend with the hometown track. In my preview of the Wood for Hello Race Fans! last night, I called Kid Cruz an “intriguing off-the-pace option.” Brian goes me one better, and if you haven’t seen Kid Cruz’s last race, take a look.
Aqueduct: The Grade I, $1 million Wood Memorial at 1 1/8 miles
#1 Kid Cruz: Stretch-runner has improved leaps and bounds since being claimed by Rice three starts back and really broke through in his last, when he closed from the clouds to win Laurel’s Private Terms in a romp at today’s distance. Son of Lemon Drop Kid is the only member of the field to win at 9 furlongs, and he did it in Maryland in a race that saw a turf-like 49 4/5 half-mile, which only adds to his appeal as today they might be going 10-15 lengths faster early, and that should make his late run that much more lethal. He also drew perfectly, which is more than you can say for his other main (and speedier) rivals, who drew outside and seem destined to be wide every step of the way. On paper he’s not the sexiest guy in the field, but with a dream post position and positive race flow that should suit his running style to a tee, it all adds up to top billing; call to mow them all down in the lane.
#2 Wicked Strong: Highly regarded 2-year-old just hasn’t bridged the gap at 3, as he’s run twice with nothing but a distant fourth-place finish in a Gulfstream Park optional claimer to last weekend’s GI Florida Derby winner Constitution to show for it. Of course, he did improve a bunch off his terrible ninth in their GII Holy Bull to kick off his season, and he was third in the local GII Remsen at this trip to close out his juvenile campaign, so at least you have that to hang your hat on if you’re expecting a big move forward. Well-bred Hard Spun colt goes out for a Jimmy Jerkens barn that rarely runs them where they shouldn’t be, but it is his dad who is the Giant Killer, so it’s tough to endorse this colt; midpack finish seems to be his ceiling.
#3 Noble Moon: Immensely talented Malibu Moon colt has taken the road less traveled, as he’s been off since winning the GII Jerome over the inner track in January and has battled foot issues in the interim. On the plus side, Gyarmati said she wouldn’t run unless he’s tearing the barn down, so the fact that he lines up in the gate has to at the very least give you a bit of confidence if you’re a fan. The issues are plenty, though, as his Jerome win was in slow time over a weak field, and he’s obviously spotting a ton of recency to his rivals, who have been plugging along all winter, so it’s a bit presumptuous to expect a top effort off the long layoff after a minor injury as well. The gut says on his best day he can play with—and threaten—these, but there are just too many factors going against him here to think that day is today; tabbing for down the road.
#4 Harpoon: Pletcher longshot passed a few tired ones in a wide rally when he was a well-beaten and non-threatening fifth in the GIII Gotham behind a few of today’s heavyweights, and it’s quite obvious he’ll have to grow up in a hurry to make a dent here. Son of Tapit (who won this race back in the day) is bred to appreciate the added ground and has a running style that fits the race flow, but up to this point he hasn’t run anywhere near fast enough to put a scare in any of the bigwigs today. Last-minute addition to the field might be able to outrun his odds strictly due to the complexion of the race, but anything but the absolute bottom of the exotics would be a major surprise; figures to pass a few late.
#5 Los Borrachos: Recent inner track MSW winner gets thrown to the wolves by Mott, which is a story in and of itself, as this is just not a move we’re accustomed to seeing from the patient Hall of Famer. Tactical son of Pulpit wasn’t visually impressive when winning at even-money last time, as he had to work pretty hard to beat a bad field, which is hardly going to make any of his more talented rivals take notice today. Lightly raced runner certainly improved in his two-turn debut last time, but this is just asking way too much at this point in his career; easy toss.
#6 Kristo: The wildcard heads in from California after finishing a distant second to arguably the pro-tem Derby favorite California Chrome in Santa Anita’s GII San Felipe and, if nothing else, will give the East Coasters a gauge on what their West Coast rivals have in store for Louisville. Son of Distorted Humor hails from a deep and talented Sadler barn and was reportedly taken off the pace last time to try new tactics—which didn’t work—so expect to see him much more forwardly placed today, like he was when second to Midnight Hawk in Santa Anita’s GIII Sham two-back. And while that’s all fine and dandy, it might also have him too close to what looks like a potentially hot and contested battle on the front end, which will potentially zap his chances in the lane. If you’re a fan, you’ll get the right price to string along, but if you’re not, you’re probably champing at the bit to toss him completely; thinking he makes his presence felt.
#7 Schivarelli: Undefeated and untested Montbrook colt is 2-for-2 and sure looked good winning his two-turn debut when he romped by 12 lengths in the mud in February over the inner track. Kenneally charge certainly gets the acid test today and is another who wants to be on or near the early lead, so with a ton of speed to his outside, he could be in for a rough trip from the get-go. Rapidly improving runner obviously has a ton of talent and upside but yikes, this is just way too ambitious of a spot to think it comes out; not seeing it.
#8 Samraat: Undefeated New York-bred has answered every question correctly up to this point, as he’s proven a game winner of both the GIII Withers and Gotham over the inner track and now takes the next logical step in his penultimate start before heading to Louisville for the Derby. Violette charge has capitalized on optimal circumstance in both his wins, as he’s been mighty fortunate to be drawn outside fellow Wood rival Uncle Sigh and the other speed, but that’s not necessarily the case today, as both ‘Sigh and the Florida speedball Social Inclusion are to his outside, so his trip might be a bit more troublesome, as he either needs to break running and potentially get caught in a tight spot to his inside, or ease back and run the risk of giving up too much ground into the first turn. Either way, it’s a tough spot, all for a horse who has plenty of Derby earnings to begin with, so it’s not like this son of Noble Causeway needs to be cranked to the gills either. On paper he’s the one to beat based on his undefeated record and multiple graded stakes wins, but the waters get a lot deeper today, he’s no faster than anyone else, won’t get all the best of it again and just gives the impression of a horse who has already put his best foot forward and will regress mightily when things don’t go his way; thinking the streak comes to a crashing halt.
#9 Effinex: Lightly raced New York-bred blasted a meek field of state-bred optional claimers over the inner track in his last to punch his ticket to this deep GI, but he sure does pick a tough spot to make his first start against open company. Trainer Smith is a complete unknown in these waters, but at least he has a quickly developing son of Mineshaft who will no doubt relish today’s distance. Visually he was very impressive last time, even though the figure wasn’t much, but uncorking a wide rally against overmatched NYBs is one thing, and doing it against a seasoned group of graded stakes performers with designs on the Kentucky Derby is quite another; no thanks.
#10 Uncle Sigh: The most unlucky horse on the backstretch must have carried some bad karma over from a former life, as he’s taken all the worst of it in his two prior stakes starts and draws poorly again today. Contessa colt was second to Samraat when forced to duel from the inside in the Withers, then was second again, beaten just a neck, when he was caught in a pace sandwich in the Gotham, so he has to be due for some racing luck one of these days. Of course, this Indian Charlie colt didn’t get any here, as he figures wide every step of the way, not to mention that he’s got the speed of the speed, Social Inclusion, to his outside. On paper he’s as talented as anyone in here and he’s run two winning races under extenuating circumstances, but it looks like once again his winning chances are going to be compromised due to his post position; a breakthrough is coming, just not likely in this spot.
#11 Social Inclusion: Aforementioned speedball heads north from South Florida where he romped in a pair of easy wins over the paved highway that is Gulfstream Park’s main track, so needless to say he’s got a lot to prove in his graded stakes debut. Son of Pioneerof The Nile set a track record when he beat Honor Code in a two-turn allowance last time, while running a figure that would win this and the Derby by open lengths, but it’s tough to take anything too seriously down south, especially since he walked uncontested on the lead in a five-horse field where his biggest rival is a colt who couldn’t make the front in a harness race and was subsequently injured and deemed off the Triple Crown trail following his second-place finish. Point being, the scenario today is night and day different, and this Azpurua runner has never sat behind a horse in his life, so who knows how he’ll act if he can’t make the front? And all of those detriments are before even mentioning his draw, which is closer to LaGuardia than it is to the inside rail, so anyone backing him better hope he breaks alertly or all hope is lost. And even still, a sharp beginning means he will have to be used to either make the front or get position, and even if he’s on the engine, it’s not like anyone is going to give him a free pass, unless he goes ballistic and throws out a :46 half-mile, which likely will leave him wobbly in the lane anyway. So yeah, let’s make him prove he can win away from a conveyer belt from a brutal draw with a murky pace scenario, all at about 2-1; tossing completely.
#1 Kid Cruz
#10 Uncle Sigh