Wood, Carter Contenders Roll Into Aqueduct

Edited from a release

Juddmonte Farms' Empire Maker, the favorite for Saturday's grade I, $750,000 Wood Memorial, arrived in Richard Dutrow Jr.'s Aqueduct barn shortly after 9 a.m. today accompanied by Aldebaran, Special Rate, and Thunder Blitz. The foursome was delayed in California on Tuesday because of a mechanical problem aboard their plane. Aldebaran will compete in the grade I, $350,000 Carter Handicap at seven furlongs, while Special Rate starts in the grade III, $150,000 Bay Shore for three-year-olds, also at seven furlongs. Trainer Bobby Frankel is expected to attend the Wood Memorial post position draw at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Aqueduct Film Theater.

Trainer Bob Baffert's trio of Congaree, During and Senor Swinger arrived without incident at Belmont Park at 4:20 p.m. Tuesday. They are stabled in John Terranova's barn.

"It's a good thing I sent them out there with their parkas," trainer Bob Baffert joked from California this morning. Senor Swinger, purchased by Bob and Beverly Lewis following the colt's fifth-place finish in the Florida Derby, will make his first start for Baffert in the Wood Memorial. Senor Swinger is lightly raced with only three starts under his belt.

"Hopefully, he'll run much better than last time," Baffert said. "He's adjusting well." Baffert was also originally considering running During in the Wood Memorial, but opted for the seven-furlong Bay Shore with him. During has won two of four starts and ran a close second behind the highly-regarded Atswhatimtalknbout.

"I'm a little bit suspect of how far During can run," Baffert reasoned. "He doesn't look like a mile-and-a-quarter horse, so I didn't see much reason to try him at a mile and an eighth now."

Stonerside Stable's Congaree will likely go off the favorite in the grade I Carter at seven furlongs. The five-year-old son of Arazi has been superb since late last summer winning four of five dirt starts. He was defeated a head by Milwaukee Brew in his last start, the Santa Anita Handicap. Congaree had been used to running between a mile and a mile and an eighth, but hung in tough going a mile and a quarter in the Big 'Cap. "The Carter is a very prestigious race and it would look very good on his resume," Baffert said. "He can get a mile and a quarter and he can get seven furlongs. He's a very versatile horse." Congaree is a perfect 2-for-2 over Aqueduct's main track. He won the Wood Memorial two years ago and was extremely impressive winning the Cigar Mile by more than five lengths last fall.

"He looks awesome," Baffert said. "I don't know how he'll like the cold and wet weather, but I know he loves that track. We're just having a lot of fun with him running when he's ready." Baffert said he plans to be in town Saturday for the races.

Trainer Sal Russo said it is "not likely" Judson Streicher's Atfirst Blush will run in the Wood Memorial. The Rubiano colt won his last start, his first with blinkers, a second-level allowance over Fund of Funds, who came back to run a strong second in the Illinois Derby (gr. II). "There's a chance we'll enter if it looks like the track will come up sloppy and someone might come out," Russo said. "It might be asking a little much of him right now. We're still leaving our options open."

Lane's End winner New York Hero, owned by Paraneck Stable, jogged two times around the sloppy main track at Aqueduct this morning. After a Monday snowstorm, a cold rain is falling over the Big A this morning. "I might have galloped him if the track were fast," trainer Jen Pedersen said. "Basically, all his training is done and now it's just up to us to keep him sound and happy. A couple of days of wet weather doesn't hurt as long as you get everything in." New York Hero will be jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr.'s first Wood Memorial mount.

Late-running Indy Dancer, owned by Wertheimer Farm, will attempt to make up the 10 3/4-length gap between him and Empire Maker from the Florida Derby. The A.P. Indy colt was out for his normal exercise this morning at Belmont Park. "The wet tracks won't really affect him now," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He got his work in on Sunday."

Indy Dancer, who won his first two starts but came up short in a pair of stakes tries, should relish an off track. With the track already wet and more rain in the forecast before Saturday, there is a chance of an off track for Saturday's Wood Memorial. Indy Dancer is out of a Mr. Prospector dam, Dance With Grace.

"From a pedigree standpoint, he's supposed to like it wet," Pletcher said. "His foot is shaped right to handle an off track as well. It's just one of those things that you won't know how he handles it until he runs in it. I usually don't breeze horses over a wet track and he hasn't worked over one. He likes to drop way out of it. Sometimes horses don't like slop being kicked back at them, but sometimes they don't mind it." John Velazquez, New York's leading jockey last year, will ride Indy Dancer in the Wood Memorial.

Sackatoga Stable's Funny Cide, who might go off a distant second choice behind Empire Maker in the Wood, arrived by van at Belmont Park last night. The colt spent the winter stabled at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida. Funny Cide started three times during a six-week span last fall and was dominating in winning a trio of starts versus fellow New York-breds. Last week, he was voted the champion New York-bred two-year-old male of 2002. By design, trainer Barclay Tagg has taken it easy with Funny Cide thus far this year. The Wood will be just his third start in nearly six months.

This year, Funny Cide finished fifth after a wide trip in the January 18th Holy Bull and third in the March 9th Louisiana Derby. "If I had run him three times in Florida and then in all three Triple Crown races if he's good enough, that would've been seven major races in a short span," Tagg said. "I thought that was just too much to ask of him. He didn't win the Holy Bull, but it took a lot out of him. He was making up ground after a ridiculously wide trip. His effort in the Louisiana Derby was good and that's given us about five weeks to prepare for the Wood. I've got a fresh horse."

Although Funny Cide is undoubtedly one of the top New York-breds in training, Tagg said he must see a giant effort by the gelding to earn him a berth in the May 3rd Kentucky Derby. "We'll find out where we stand with him on Saturday," Tagg said. "I think he's a sound and talented young horse. If he runs big in the Wood, we'll talk about the Derby. If not, we won't be going. I'm not going to chase an empty wagon. I'm not going to ruin him by running him in a race where he doesn't belong."