Medaglia d'Oro, installed as the morning-line favorite for the Wood Memorial.

Medaglia d'Oro, installed as the morning-line favorite for the Wood Memorial.

Wood Memorial to Separate The Men From The Boys

The Kentucky Derby trail heads into the unknown Saturday, as eight 3-year-olds attempt to sort themselves out and prove they belong in the Run for Roses.

Frankly, no one has a clue what's going to happen or just how good the top choices really are. While any one of five of the eight horses entered could conceivably emerge as the Kentucky Derby favorite, it is also possible that only a couple are true Derby contenders. That's what makes the 1 1/8-mile race so intriguing.

Medaglia d'Oro, with only three career starts, has been made the morning line favorite at 5-2, followed by Saarland at 3-1, Buddha at 4-1, and Blue Burner and Sunday Break at 9-2, which gives you some indication just how closely matched this field is. Then again, it is possible one of them will win off by himself and establish himself as something special.

Medaglia d'Oro, who will break from post 4 with Laffit Pincay, is coming off a remarkable victory in the San Felipe Stakes, in which he set the early pace, dropped back to third as if a beaten horse, then came on again with a strong run to win going away by 2 1/12 lengths. And this was coming off a 6-furlong maiden victory at Oaklawn Park, after which he was sold to Bobby Frankel for his longtime client Edmund Gann. No one really knows what this colt's running style is, so it's a guess where he'll be early. There doesn't seem to be any speed in the race, indicating he might be winging it on the lead once again.

"He's done everything right, and if he improves like he has from his first to second start and his second to third start, then we'll be in good shape," Frankel said.

Two horses whose running styles are pretty well established are Saarland and Blue Burner, and you can expect both of them to be near the back of the pack. They break from posts 7 and 8, respectively. Saarland, who won the Remsen at Aqueduct last fall, should benefit greatly from his second in the Gotham, in which he made a good move through three-quarters in 1:09 2/5, pulling to within two lengths of the pace-setting Mayakovsky.

"I think his 2-year-old experience is an edge," trainer Shug McGaughey said. "Going over there having a win over the track and distance is an edge. I hope the Wood is not his best race. I hope he wins, but I don't want to see it take his best effort to win. The idea is
to have the Wood springboard him even farther along to the Derby."

Blue Burner is coming off strong performances in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, but he did finish farther from the winner than he was at the quarter pole, so he still has to prove to trainer Bill Mott and jockey Jerry Bailey that he is able to make a strong move and sustain it to the wire.

"His Florida Derby was a big effort," Mott said. "That was his first start with blinkers and I think they really helped to focus him. He's improved every time he steps on the track. I'm hoping he'll continue that trend in the Wood Memorial. I have a horse that is a legitimate contender for the Kentucky Derby. What more could I ask for?"

Buddha, the real unknown in the race, breaks from the rail under new rider Pat Day, who gave up the mount on Mr. Mellon in the Arkansas Derby and Request for Parole, who was to have run in the Blue Grass Stakes, but will now train up to the Derby. Although the son of Unbridled's Song has run only three times in his career, including a non-race in his debut last year, when he entrapped his epiglottis, trainer Jim Bond is very optimistic he will run big in the Wood. Some of the speed sheets players feel he is ripe to bounce after earning a monster number in his last start, a 9 1/4-length allowance score at Gulfstream. But this colt still has so much room for improvement, and he has done things this year that suggest he could be a very special horse.

"Fusaichi Pegasus was lightly raced and he won the Wood and Derby," Bond said. "Every horse is different and, what matters the most is how they are mentally. Some horses are just quicker upstairs than others. So far, it seems like Buddha has the game down pat."

Another colt who could be special is the Neil Drysdale-trained Sunday Break, who has won his last three starts, including a bizarre victory in an Aqueduct allowance race, in which he ducked in severely on two occasions and changed his leads six times in the stretch. But Drysdale and jockey Gary Stevens feel he was just playing that day and will show vast improvement in the Wood. The Japanes-bred son of Forty Niner will break from post 3.

Another unknown commodity in the Wood is the European shipper Laissezaller, who is coming off two good efforts on Lingfield's all-weather track. Both races were at 1 1/4 miles and against older horses. His trainer, Amanda Perrett, will saddle the colt, after which he will remain in America and turned over to Bill Mott. Richard Migliore gets the call on the son of End Sweep.

Todd Pletcher will give Nokoma one more chance to prove he belongs in the Derby field. since finishing second to Saarland in the remsen, the son of Pulpit has been very inconsistent, sandwiching an allowance victory with dismal efforts in the holy Bull Stakes and Florida derby. But the colt has done very well since returning to New York and Platcher feels he deserves another shot to prove himself. Mike Smith has the ride.

Rounding out the field is the Nick Zito-trained Iwin, third behind Sunday Break in his last start, who will have the services of Kent Desormeaux.