Can last year's champion 2-year-old War Pass rebound in the Wood Memorial?<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Can last year's champion 2-year-old War Pass rebound in the Wood Memorial?
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Derby Hopefuls Face Do or Die Weekend

With the final Derby preps approaching, there is no more room for error. It’s time to earn your way into the Run for the Roses or pack up and go home. The three graded stakes this weekend – the grade I Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial and grade II Illinois Derby – offer intriguing plot lines that will make or break aspiring Derby hopefuls.

Those plot lines include some juicy questions:

Can last year’s champion 2-year-old War Pass rebound in the Wood Memorial following a dreadful performance at odds of 1-20 in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III)?

Will War Pass be vulnerable once again with the addition of Inner Light to help set it up for stablemate Court Vision?

Can El Gato Malo turn the tables on Colonel John with a better trip in the Santa Anita Derby?

Can Todd Pletcher slip quietly into the Derby this year with Atoned (Illinois Derby), Texas Wildcatter (Wood Memorial), or On the Virg (Santa Anita Derby)?

Will the surprising, last-minute decision to skip the Rebel Stakes (gr. III) and wait seven weeks to run in the Illinois Derby, come back to haunt Denis of Cork’s connections or will the race prove to be a perfect prep for the Run for the Roses?

Can Tale of Ekati bounce back from a sixth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), in which he had a terrible start, and get enough out of the Wood Memorial to give him any kind of a shot in the Kentucky Derby?

One person who is sitting on the proverbial egg shells waiting to find out the answer to the first question is War Pass’ owner Robert LaPenta, who has a couple of theories on why his colt performed the way he did at Tampa.

“There’s been a lot of conversation and a lot of second-guessing, and a lot of conjecture,” LaPenta said on a national teleconference. “There’s no factual evidence and no research that has gone into this, but I think it all started when he broke poorly. Was there some type of plan to make him break slow, with horses rearing up that normally wouldn’t have acted that way? At any rate, he did rear, and the gate opened just as he was coming down. Then the “2” and the “4” basically sandwiched him in and put him in a position he normally wasn’t accustomed to.

“It’s true that champion horses respond to that kind of adversity and somehow they prevail, but in this case, the horse we all saw at the top of the stretch was not the same horse we saw three weeks earlier who cruised home in 1:36 and wasn’t even blowing at all. This was a horse that was in distress, and the most plausible explanation I have for that today is that he flipped his palate. We scoped him after the race and there was no congestion and no issues. But for a horse to be in that much distress, that, to me, would be the most probable explanation.”

Although LaPenta said he’s looking forward to War Pass having a chance to redeem himself, he is prepared for a stressful afternoon at the Big A.

“It’s a day that’s going to be filled with a lot of apprehension and stress,” he said. “But we’re looking forward to seeing which War Pass shows up. Whether he wins or not is not a big issue for me. I just want to see him running with authority in the stretch and really moving forward in this race. That’s all we’re looking for.”

Moving to California, with Georgie Boy out of the Santa Anita Derby, all eyes now will be on the return match between Colonel John and El Gato Malo, who finished one-two, separated by only a neck, in the nine-furlong Sham Stakes (gr. III).

One thing El Gato Malo’s trainer Craig Dollase is hoping for is a better trip than he had in the Sham, in which he was stuck behind horses most of the way. Despite coming home his final eighth in :11 3/5 after swinging to the outside, he was unable to run down Colonel John, who had a perfect trip behind an extremely slow pace.

“We just need the trip this time,” Dollase said. “He almost overcame the trip in the Sham, but he got a lot out of the race, and it was a good learning experience. He’s always drawn down on the inside, so we’re hoping to get a better draw and better trip this time.”

Although El Gato Malo has a pedigree more geared toward a mile to a mile and an eighth, Dollase said, “He’s kind of a lightly framed, long-legged horse, so that tells me he will be able to get the distance. I think he proved that by coming home so fast in his last race. He’s a push-button horse with a good turn of foot, and you need that if you get bottled up on the inside.”

Looking ahead, while Dollase said he hasn’t decided whether he would ship El Gato Malo to Churchill Downs early or come in right on top of the race, Colonel John’s trainer, Eoin Harty, said he’ll likely ship his colt to Louisville 10 days to two weeks out and give him a work over the track to get him used to the dirt.

WinStar Farm, which owns Colonel John and co-owns Court Vision with IEAH Stables, and trainer Bill Mott are pulling out all stops in the Wood Memorial by entering the speedy Inner Light to assure that War Pass doesn’t run off with an easy lead. Inner Light is coming off a two-length victory in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream, in which he tracked blistering fractions of :44 and 1:08 4/5 before drawing clear in the final furlong, so he should have enough speed to eyeball War Pass if the champ is intent on getting back to his front-running ways. This actually may be the best thing for War Pass, who still needs to prove he can sit off the pace and win or at least engage some early speed and keep going.

As of Wednesday it looks as if War Pass will be aided by a wet track, with rain forecast in the New York area late Friday into Saturday. War Pass won the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) on a sloppy track.