Eskendereya and Awesome Act turned in two of the most impressive Triple Crown prep efforts to this point in the season last out, and those two heavyweights will face off in the $750,000 Wood Memorial (gr. I) April 3 at Aqueduct. A field of six was drawn.
With a showdown between those two colts looming, as well as inclusion of top notch 3-year-olds Jackson Bend and Schoolyard Dreams, it can be argued that the Wood is the strongest—and maybe the most important—of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) prep races. Both Eskendereya and Awesome Act are among the favorites for the May 1 classic at Churchill Downs.
The Wood, at 1 1/8 miles on the main track, is the feature of an 11-race Aqueduct program that offers four graded stakes, including the grade I Carter Handicap. Post time for the Wood is slated for 5:12 p.m. (EDT).
No Wood winner has gone on to take the roses since Fusaichi Pegasus did it in 2000, but that could change this year. Many would say the most likely candidate is Zayat Stables’ Eskendereya, who romped by 8 1/2 lengths in the Feb. 20 Fountain of Youth (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 106—the highest for any 3-year-old this year. The son of Giant's Causeway—Aldebaran Light, by Seattle Slew, took a one-mile allowance event at Gulfstream in his only other race this season, going wire-to-wire Jan. 7 to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
Eskendereya was originally being pointed toward the Florida Derby (gr. I), but trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Ahmed Zayat decided to ship him to New York—primarily because they preferred going into the Kentucky Derby off of four weeks rest instead of six, and it gave the colt more time coming out of the Fountain of Youth.
“It was a difficult decision,” Pletcher said. “On one hand we had a horse that was two-for-two at Gulfstream that was coming off a big race and part of you wants to run back on the surface you’ve been running on. The flip side of that is any time you’re coming off a lifetime effort like he was, perhaps additional time is going to be beneficial. So there are pros and cons to either.”
Currently, Eskendereya has accumulated $150,000 of graded earnings and may need a top four placing in the Wood to earn his way into the Derby starting gate. Pletcher doesn’t see that as being a problem.
“He has so much potential and just seems like he continually gets better in, not only his races, but watching him train," Pletcher said. "And physically, he’s got all the tools. Hopefully he runs well. He’s capable of winning and (hopefully) he comes out of it well and continues to move forward.”
John Velazquez keeps the mount on the chestnut colt, listed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite, and they will break from post 3.
Susan Roy and Vinery Stables’ Awesome Act turned in a sparkling effort in the March 6 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct—his first start on natural dirt. Stabled in England with Jeremy Noseda, the Awesome Again colt made a huge move around the second turn in the 1 1/16-mile Gotham, going from fourth to first in a matter of strides, then prevailed by 1 1/4-lengths under Julien Leparoux, who will be in the irons once again.
Awesome Act had made five of his six starts on turf prior to the Gotham, including a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita last November in his U.S. debut. He has produced a record of 2-2-1 from seven starts.
“The performance in the Gotham confirmed what we believed, that he would handle the dirt well and hopefully be a better horse on the dirt,” Noseda said. “It’s put him in the firing line, but we need a good performance on Saturday to keep moving forward.”
Awesome Act did his training for the Gotham in England, but has remained in New York since then. He has worked twice at Belmont Park leading up to the Wood, including a six-furlong work March 25 in 1:14.05. Noseda acknowledged that training a horse up to the Kentucky Derby is new territory for him.
“Since we’ve been at Belmont we’re training him like an American horse, which I’m going to be very honest with you, I don’t feel quite as comfortable with as I do training (in England),” Noseda said. “But that’s what we’ve got to do if we’re going to arrive in Kentucky.
“(There was a point) after the Gotham where I stood there and thought to myself how I would love to be able to take him back to Newmarket and then get him ready for the Kentucky Derby. But that isn’t the case. We’ve had our changes training—it’s only a subtle difference—but he’s training as an American horse would train now. It seems to be suiting him.
“There is a possibility (he will) bounce on Saturday. I’m prepared for that. I hope he doesn’t regress too much off his last performance.”
The other major players in the Wood are Jacks or Better Farm and Robert LaPenta’s Jackson Bend and Eric Fein and Anthony Mitola’s Schoolyard Dreams.
Jackson Bend finished runner-up to Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth after being near the pace but tiring late in his first try at nine furlongs. The Nick Zito trainee was also runner-up in the Holy Bull (gr. III) in his season debut. Calvin Borel gets the mount.
Schoolyard Dreams was originally being pointed toward the Illinois Derby (gr. III) after his hard-luck nose defeat to Odysseus in the March 13 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), but trainer Derek Ryan decided to try the Wood instead—in large part because he was able to secure top New York rider Ramon Dominguez. Also runner-up in the Feb. 13 Sam F. Davis, Schoolyard Dreams has banked $100,000 in graded earnings and will likely need a top three finish to make the Kentucky Derby.
Rounding out the field is seven-length maiden winner Carnivore, and Most Happy Fella, who won an optional claimer two weeks over over the inner track.
$750,000 Wood Memorial (gr. I, Race 9, 5:12 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Most Happy Fella (NY), A R Napravnik, 123, W Badgett Jr.
2. Awesome Act (KY), J R Leparoux, 123, J Noseda
3. Eskendereya (KY), J R Velazquez, 123, T A Pletcher
4. Schoolyard Dreams (KY), R A Dominguez, 123, D S Ryan
5. Jackson Bend (FL), C H Borel, 123, N P Zito
6. Carnivore (KY), J Shepherd, 123, J W Delozier, III