Nick Zito has not lost faith in War Pass. True, the colt has questions to answer after finishing last as the 1-20 choice in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III). But the trainer saw his 2007 juvenile champ at his best during a five-race winning streak that carried over into this season, and he's hoping that side is revealed again when the son of Cherokee Run heads a field of 10 in Aqueduct’s $750,000 Wood Memorial (gr. I).
Whether the Robert LaPenta-owned runner will turn in a performance similar to his sparkling wire-to-wire win in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) – or whether he’ll fade as in the dismal 23 ¼-length Tampa Bay Derby loss – is a question that will be answered in the April 5 running of the Wood. One thing’s for sure, Zito said. When War Pass is right, he puts an exclamation point on any race.
“War Pass is a special horse, and I have a lot of confidence in him. I always have,” Zito said. “(Jockey) Cornelio (Velasquez) will let him fly no matter what, and from what I can see, he’s going to put in a very good effort.”
With his colt starting from post five in the 10-horse field, the trainer’s main concern is that War Pass gets a good break – something he was denied in the Tampa Bay Derby, when he reared at the start and was bumped early.
“He’s right in the middle, so they kind of got him squeezed,” Zito said. “I would have preferred if he was in or out, but hopefully he’ll be able to get away from there. I just hope nobody comes in and nobody comes out. I don’t care if they run with him providing he gets a shot to run. Just please let him get away from there and not get beat up.”
On March 27, Zito sent War Pass through a snappy four-furlong breeze in :47.40 at Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida. The work, fastest of 11 at the distance that day, was key to the next step on the trail to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) for the colt who tops the entry list with $1,320,000 in graded stakes earnings.
“It was a solid work,” Zito said. “If he wasn’t gonna give us that, we couldn’t even think of (starting in the Wood). He looked like his old self, he was happy.”
Still, nine other trainers are gambling on the chance that the previously undefeated colt has lost his winning edge. They’re sending out starters such as Court Vision, Tale of Ekati, and Giant Moon in the 1 1/8-mile event, which will be televised live on NBC combined with the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) during a 5-6 p.m. EDT program.
The three-day forecast in New York calls for an 80% chance of rain, but War Pass should have no trouble since he’s two-for-two over an off track. For other starters, such as the Bill Mott-trained Court Vision, the rain could be an issue. Court Vision comes off a solid third-place finish in the Feb. 24 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) Stakes, but has never run over sloppy going. Owned by IEAH Stables and WinStar Farm, the Gulchcolt is currently 13th on the graded earnings list with $256,872 in purses after victories in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes (gr. II) and the one-mile Iroquois Stakes (gr. III). He could build a case as a solid contender for the Run for the Roses with a win in the Wood.
“He was back a ways on a speed-favoring track (in the Fountain of Youth), so given a little better position, I think he could do well,” Mott said of the runner, who got up in that race after making a seven-wide move on the turn. “It’s an important race that would look good on his resume. The mile and an eighth distance seems to suit him and he gives every indication he could go on to a mile and a quarter. We haven’t run in that kind of (muddy) going, so we’ll see what happens.”
Court Vision’s come-from-behind style should serve him well in the Wood, and will not conflict with the front-running preferences of stablemate Inner Light, a son of Songandaprayer who could end up challenging War Pass for the lead. Inner Light broke his maiden in a wire-to-wire score, and then took a March 7 allowance at Gulfstream after tracking the pace.
“That particular horse is coming off a good allowance race and has a lot to prove,” Mott said of the WinStar colt.
The Wood is known as a defining race on a horse's path to the Derby, but this year it could define trainer Todd Pletcher’s chances of ending up in Louisville May 3. For Pletcher trainees Texas Wildcatter (38th by graded earnings) and Spurrier (46th), a victory in the race is necessary to improve chances of making it to the Derby. Along with Illinois Derby (gr. II) starter Atoned, the duo is Pletcher’s last major hope of sliding onto the Derby scene.
Owned by Stonerside Stable, Texas Wildcatter is Pletcher’s better contender in the Wood. The son of Monarchos is coming off a tough beat to Visionaire after emerging from the fog with a clear lead in the March 8 Gotham Stakes (gr. III), but losing by a nose. Pletcher added blinkers in the Gotham and saw a definite difference in the colt’s ability to focus. Still, with only $50,000 in graded stakes earnings and no score of his own in black-type events, Texas Wildcatter will have to turn in the best race of his career.
“He’s improved his performance with each race and part of that is due to maturity,” Pletcher said. “He showed he belongs with these the last time. (As for) Spurrier, this is a real step up, but he’s also improved with blinkers. I’m interested to see where he fits.”
While Charle’s Fipke’s Tale of Ekati looks to bounce back from a non-threatening sixth in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) for trainer Barclay Tagg, Albert Fried Jr.’s previously unbeaten Giant Moon will try to rebound from a last-place finish behind Visionaire in the foggy Gotham Stakes (gr. III) for trainer Richard Schosberg. Roman Emperor, beaten by Giant Moon in the Count Fleet and fourth in the Gotham in his last start, will take on the field – as will another Zito trainee, Anak Nakal. The rank outsider in the Wood will be First Commandment, who comes off an entry-level allowance win against New York-breds.
$750,000 Wood Memorial (gr. I, race 9, approximate post 5:15 p.m. EDT), 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-olds*, dirt *All starters carry 123 pounds PP, Horse, Jockey 1. Texas Wildcatter, Eibar Coa
2. Spurrier, Stewart Elliott
3a. Court Vision, Garrett Gomez
4. First Commandment, Mike Luzzi
5. War Pass, Cornelio Velasquez
6. Roman Emperor, Jeremy Rose
7. Giant Moon, Jorge Chavez
8. Tale of Ekati, Edgar Prado
9a. Inner Light , C.C. Lopez
10. Anak Nakal, Alan Garcia