The running of the $500,000 Woodward (gr. I) Saturday at Saratoga could turn out to be the most crucial start of the year for 2005 Travers (gr. I) champion Flower Alley.
On a sad note, the Woodward – race 9 of an 11-race card with ESPN television coverage from 4:30 to 5:30 pm. Eastern -- will be Flower Alley's first race since the death of his breeder, George Brunacini. Brunacini, 60, was one of 49 people who perished Sunday morning in the crash of Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington.
"Mr. and Mrs. Melnyk decided to dedicate the race," Flower Alley's trainer Todd Pletcher said. "Johnny (jockey John Velazquez) is going to wear a black band on his pants. This is obviously a tragedy for the horse industry with Mr. Brunacini and other people that were important in the game on that flight."
Although he won his first race back this year, the Salvatore Mile (gr. III) at Monmouth, the 4-year-old has yet to show the brilliance he displayed in last year's "Mid-Summer Derby," Jim Dandy or Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I).
Pletcher is expecting a much improved effort from Flower Alley in the Woodward after the son of Distorted Humor
finished a disappointing seventh as the 3-2 favorite beaten nine lengths in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) earlier in the meet.
"I was a little concerned in the Whitney that we might be a race away from being at the same level as some of those other horses from a seasoning standpoint," Pletcher said. "We've got that race under our belt and he's had some good works since then. It's all in order now and it's up to him to step up and do it."
The Woodward, formerly a fixture at Belmont Park's Fall Championship meet, will be run for the first time at Saratoga this year. Pletcher was one of the proponents of the switch.
"From a timing perspective, I think it's a fit towards the (grade I) Jockey Club Gold Cup," Pletcher said. "I like the spacing of it and it doesn't bother us that it's at Saratoga."
The Jockey Club Gold Cup at a 1 1/4 miles will be run at Belmont Park Oct. 7.
Tracy Farmer's Sun King, so far the leading contender for 2006 tough-beat Horse of the Year, might finally get lucky in the Woodward. In his two grade I appearances this year, the 4-year-old colt missed by a head to Belmont Park-loving Silver Train in the Met Mile (gr. I) and came up a nose short to a very game Invasor in the Whitney Handicap.
"He's a very versatile horse," Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito said. "He's very good at everything he does. It would be great for him to win one of these. Those noses were inches. When the horses are ding-donging, you can't tell who's in front. It's just a head-bob. I hope he gets a good journey."
Apprentice Julien Leparoux is the new pilot on Sun King, replacing the injured Rafael Bejarano.
Zito will also run Robert LaPenta's Andromeda's Hero, who was third behind Invasor and Wild Desert in the Suburban Handicap (gr. I) at Belmont and recently took a third-level allowance here at the Spa.
Wanderin Boy, second behind Invasor in the Pimlico Special (gr. I), has also been entered by Zito. He figures to mix it up early with Suave and possibly Funny Cide.
Daniel Borislow and Sanford Goldfarb's Wild Desert, second beaten 4 ½ lengths in the Suburban, will return to the dirt after running eighth in the Sword Dancer (gr. IT) at a 1 1/2 miles on grass last time.
"He's live," trainer Richard Dutrow said. "There's no question he's live. I think that he likes this track. He's training really good on this track. Even last year, before I had to stop on him, he was training really good on this track."
Fan favorite Funny Cide will make just his second start at Saratoga in the Woodward, after taking Woodbine's grade 3 Dominion Day July 1, weather permitting.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness, both grade I, winner ran second in the 2004 Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II). The 6-year-old gelding is enjoying a productive 2006, with a pair of wins and seconds from seven starts, but may not start if the track is muddy.
There are 10,000 Funny Cide posters that will be given away Saturday, and members of Sackatoga Stable will be available for autographs near The Silks from 11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Suave and Second of June have faced each other in their last two starts with Suave winning both races. Suave prevailed by a nose in an optional claiming race at Churchill in June before winning the Washington Park Handicap (gr. II) at Arlington by five lengths.
Suave won last year's Saratoga Breeders' Cup by 2 ¾ lengths in gate-to-wire fashion.
New York-bred Naughty New Yorker will run against grade 1 company for the first time since finishing fifth in last year's Wood Memorial (gr. I). The Pat Kelly-trained colt comes off an impressive win in the Noble Nashua.
Longshots Papi Chullo and Premium Tap will have their work cut out for them in this tough Woodward field.
The field for Saturday's 1 1/8-mile Woodward includes:
1--Wild Desert (Edgar Prado, 126)
2--Papi Chullo (Eibar Coa, 126)
3--Suave (Calvin Borel, 126)
4--Naughty New Yorker (Jose Santos, 126)
5--Sun King (Julien Leparoux, 126)
6--Flower Alley (John Velazquez, 126)
7--Second of June (Garrett Gomez, 126)
8--Premium Tap (Kent Desormeaux, 126)
9--Andromeda's Hero (Fernando Jara, 126)
10--Funny Cide (Richard Migliore, 126)
11--Wanderin Boy (Javier Castellano, 126)