Saturday's big afternoon of Kentucky Derby (gr. I) preps will kick off with the $750,000 Wood Memorial (gr. I), as 11 3-year-olds, headed by Value Plus, Master David, and Eddington, try to earn a starting berth in the 130th Run for the Roses.
Of the three Derby preps, none will be more dictated by strategy than the Wood, which has drawn a large field made up predominantly of speed horses, stalkers, and mid-pack horses. So, position will be all the more important, with the short run into the first turn.
The horse to beat will be Aaron and Marie Jones' Value Plus, second in the Florida Derby (gr. I), who comes into the race razor sharp following five-furlong works of :59 and :59 3/5 at Palm Meadows training center. The son of Unbridled's Song
will break from post 6, with John Velazquez aboard. The two other possible speed horses in the field, Sinister G and Cuba, both will break outside the big gray, which could put him down on the inside if Velazquez elects to go for the lead. But trainer Todd Pletcher doesn't feel as if Value Plus needs to be in front, and is just as effective rating off the pace, as he did in the Florida Derby.
"There's a misconception that this is a frontrunning horse that needs to rate," Pletcher said. "If you look at the majority of his races, he's not really a confirmed frontrunner."
Value Plus has had his share of misadventures coming out of the gate, including dumping Velazquez at the start of the Nashua Stakes, and there is little chance of him blasting out of the gate. But he did break slowly in the Florida Derby, and if he does it again, he could get swallowed up in the charge to the first turn.
Value Plus' main two threats are the Bobby Frankel-trained Master David, winner of the Sham Stakes, who breaks from post 5 with Alex Solis, and Eddington, third in the Gotham, who drew post 8, with Jerry Bailey back aboard.
Master David has not run since the Feb. 8 Sham, missing the Florida Derby because of a cough that caused him to miss several days of training. The son of Grand Slam has been working sharply at Hollywood Park, turning in a five-furlong work in 1:00 3/5 and six furlongs in a bullet 1:12 3/5. Master David showed good tactical speed in the Sham, but in his U.S. debut, came mid-pack with a strong late run to finish second behind Read the Footnotes in the nine-furlong Remsen Stakes (gr. II). Under the circumstances, one would think Frankel will not have Master David fully cranked to win the Wood, but the colt needs first- or second-place earnings to assure a spot in the Derby field.
The same goes for Eddington, whose best efforts came in a maiden and allowance race at Gulfstream after trainer Mark Hennig equipped him with blinkers. The Gotham, which turned out to be a freakish race, due to a strong backstretch tailwind and blistering fractions, served its purpose of getting Eddington back a little farther off the pace. But he, too, now needs to finish first or second in the Wood or risk being kept out of the Derby.
Also trying to pick up enough earnings to get in the Derby are Swingforthefences, third in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), and Little Matth Man, winner of the ungraded Whirlaway Stakes over the Big A inner track, who also finished in the money in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) and Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park. Swingforthefences loses the services of his last two riders, Jerry Bailey and Edgar Prado, and gets his first rider, Shaun Bridgmohan, back. He'll break from post 4, with Little Matth Man, who ships in from Philadelphia Park the morning of the race, coming out of post 7.
The once highly touted Tapit is yet another in the same boat, having only a sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby in an ill-fated winter and spring campaign that saw him miss 19 days of training because of a sore shin, and exiting the Florida Derby with a bronchial infection and foot abscess. Trainer Michael Dickinson is realistically hoping for nothing more than a good third-place finish and to come out of the race healthy. Whether that would be sufficient enough earnings, added to his Laurel Futurity (gr. III) winnings, to get him in the Derby remains to be seen. Tapit who breaks from post 2, will be ridden by Ramon Dominguez, who got the mount back after Edgar Prado elected to ride Birdstone in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) instead. Tapit also will van up the morning of the race from Dickinson's Tapeta Farm in North East, Md.
Sinister G, winner of the Lane's End, will have to be used coming out of post 9, with the lightly raced local horse, Cuba, breaking from post 11.
Bob Baffert, who has Wimbledon and Preachinatthebar as his main Derby horses, is taking a shot with WinStar Derby runner-up Consecrate to see if if the son of Silver Charm
can earn the right to join them at Churchill Downs on May 1.
Breaking from the rail will be the Nick Zito-trained Royal Assault, who has only three career starts and is looking to find out where and if he fits in this year's Triple Crown picture. He was third, beaten more than 11 lengths, by Value Plus is a seven-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream, and after a good second behind the more experienced Suave in his first two-turn test, he'll now try to make up some of those lengths on Value Plus.
One unknown horse is the local colt, Hornshope, who was a troubled second to Song of the Sword before beating Cuba after a stirring stretch duel in a recent allowance race.
The Field for the $750,000, 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial (gr. I):
Horse, trainer, jockey, weight
1 -- Royal Assault, Nick Zito, Javier Castellano, 123
2 -- Tapit, Michael Dickinson, Ramon Dominguez, 123
3 -- Consecrate, Bob Baffert, Jorge Chavez, 123
4 -- Swingforthefences, Rick Violette, Shaun Bridgmohan, 123
5 -- Master David, Bobby Frankel. Alex Solis, 123
6 -- Value Plus, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 123
7 -- Little Matth Man, Martin Ciresa, Pablo Fregoso, 123
8 -- Eddington, Mark Hennig, Jerry Bailey, 123
9 -- Sinister G, John Toscano, Paul Toscano, 123
10 -- Hornshope, Michael Daggett, Mike Luzzi, 123
11 -- Cuba, Tom Bush, Aaron Gryder, 123