After turning in three dominating performances to open his season and cementing himself as the top handicap horse in the nation, Quality Road was knocked down a peg when Blame ran him down in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) last month.
The narrow defeat, in which Blame got up by a head in the final couple jumps, was not exactly a dull effort by the son of Elusive Quality, but a sharp victory in the $750,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) Sept. 4 at Saratoga sure would go a long way in helping reestablish his place atop the division.
The homebred son of Edward Evans will be expected to easily handle the Woodward field, as he was tabbed as the 1-4 morning-line favorite at the Sept. 1 draw. It will likely be his final start before the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs.
Quality Road will face six rivals in the nine-furlong Woodward, including Mythical Power, a multiple grade III winner, and Mine That Bird, who still seeks his first win since his Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) shocker last year. Post time for the race, which shares top billing with the $250,000 Forego Handicap (gr. I), is slated for 5:48 p.m. EDT.
Sent off as the 1-2 favorite, Quality Road led at every call in the Aug. 7 Whitney, and did so while setting reasonable fractions under Johnny Velazquez. So it was a mild surprise to many that Blame was able to run him down in the final yards.
Quality Road looked unbeatable in his first three starts, winning by a combined 17 lengths in the Hal’s Hope (gr. III), Donn Handicap (gr. I), and Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I). The Virginia-bred colt, who has a history of quarter crack troubles, has had a carefully managed campaign this year and Pletcher will likely give him a full two months off before he tries to make amends in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race he missed last year after refusing to enter the starting gate at Santa Anita Park.
“We're a half-a-head short of (being unbeaten) this year,” said Pletcher. “Every race is paramount; they’re all important. If you lose, you regroup and try again, to regain his confidence, and regain our confidence.”
Never off the board in 11 starts, Quality Road has produced a 7-3-1 mark with earnings of $1,782,830. The six-time graded stakes winner, who turned in his final tune-up on Aug. 29 at Saratoga when breezing five furlongs in 1:00.05, will break from post 3 with Velazquez aboard once again.
Though he has been on the lead in every race except the Donn this year, Pletcher is hoping Quality Road will rate beyond another horse this time, if it plays out that way.
“We’re hoping for someone to show enough initiative so he can follow someone,” said Pletcher. “That would be our Plan A.”
The speed Pletcher is looking for may come in the form of Southern Equine Stable's Arcodoro, a front-running allowance winner at Saratoga on July 31. The Medaglia d'Oro colt is the longest shot on the morning-line at 30-1 but could be an asset for Quality Road..
Ironically, Pletcher’s top competition in the Woodward could come from a horse that used to be in his barn, Mythical Power. The son of Congaree never started for Pletcher, but was in training for Pletcher as a 2-year-old before being moved to the barn of Bob Baffert. Owned and bred by Peachtree Stable, Mythical Power went on to win the Lone Star Derby (gr. III) as a sophomore in 2009 and capture the Texas Mile (gr. III) in April, his lone win in five starts his season.
Mythical Power (12-1) enters out of a fifth-place finish in the San Diego Handicap (gr. II) on Del Mar’s Polytrack July 31. The bay colt also ran off the board in the Lone Star Park (gr. III) and Cornhusker (gr. II) handicaps earlier ths season.
He has turned in two solid efforts at Saratoga in preparation for the Woodward, including a bullet move on Aug. 27 when clocking 1:00.22 for five furlongs.
Solid works have not been the problem for Mine That Bird, who has trained superbly for D. Wayne Lukas. But the moves have not translated into competitive efforts on race day for the 4-year-old Birdstone gelding. He finished eighth in the Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) in his turf debut at Churchill Downs in July and was never a factor when fifth in the Whitney last month. Lukas is hoping a rider change from Calvin Borel to Rajiv Maragh and new equipment will make a difference this time.
Mine That Bird is 0-for-7 since his 50-1 Derby upset.
“He had a really nice work the other day (Aug. 24) in 1:11 4/5 on the training track,” Lukas said. “We put little cutback cup blinkers on him, and we think that may let him lay a little bit closer to the pace.
"We needed to move forward. The blinkers, the rider change--we weren’t getting results with the way things were.”
Trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who scored the biggest victory of his career with Afleet Express in last week’s Travers (gr. I), seeks another upset win with Centennial Farms’ Convocation. The 4-year-old Pulpit colt is three-time graded stakes-placed, including a runner-up effort in the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) in July. Prior to that he was fourth to Quality Road in the Met Mile.
Convocation, the 6-1 second choice, enters off a narrow win in an Aug. 4 optional claimer at Saratoga going nine furlongs. Javier Castellano, also aboard for Afleet Express' score, will have the mount.
“He has a victory at the distance here,” said Jerkens of Convocation. “You have to think that’s big going into a stakes.”
Darley's Tranquil Manner also enters off a nine-furlong optional claiming win Aug. 11 at the Spa. But that doesn't make trainer Kiaran McLaughlin all that confident.
“It’s a bit of a stretch,” said McLaughlin. “Obviously, we don’t have any visions of beating Quality Road. But he’s an A.P. Indy colt, and if he hits the board it would help his value as a stallion. Plus, we have 12 seconds this meet, and it would be nice to get 13.”
$750,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I, Race 10, 5:48 p.m.), 3 & Up, 9 Furlongs (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Convocation (KY), J Castellano, 126, J A Jerkens
2. Mine That Bird (KY), R Maragh, 126, D W Lukas
3. Quality Road (VA), J R Velazquez, 126, T A Pletcher
4. Arcodoro (KY), D Cohen, 126, E J Guillot
5. Indian Dance (MD), K J Desormeaux, 126, L E Murray
6. Tranquil Manner (KY), A Garcia, 126, K P McLaughlin
7. Mythical Power (KY), M Garcia, 126, B Baffert