A field of six was entered for Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial, with the 4-5 morning line favorite Monarchos drawing post 2. California invader Congaree, listed at 8-5, will break from post 5.
Richly Blended, wire-to-wire winner of the Gotham Stakes, drew post 6, and is expected once again to set the pace under jockey Rick Wilson. The remainder of the field is made up of It's So Simple, from the Nick Zito stable; Voodoo, third in the Gotham; and Paging, third in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Jorge Chavez will be in his familiar seat aboard Monarchos, who shipped up from Churchill Downs this week, while his stablemate Hero's Tribute remains in Kentucky for the Blue Grass Stakes. "Monarchos' running style is better suited for Aqueduct and that's Chavez's backyard," Ward said. "Hero's Tribute is a leggy, speed-oriented colt, so Keeneland is better for him."
Monarchos demonstrated a devastating turn of foot in the Florida Derby to blow by horses on the far turn. With only six horses in the Wood, however, there will be more of an accent on speed, which makes Richly Blended dangerous, especially if no one puts any early pressure on him. Congaree appears to be a stalker who likes to sit right in behind the speed, and his rider Victor Espinoza will have to time his move carefully, with a classy speed horse in front of him and a classy closer behind him.
Congaree, with only three career starts, due to a bone chip in his knee last year, is coming off two spectacular victories this year at Santa Anita, and trainer Bob Baffert is confident the son of Arazi will take a lot of beating on Saturday.
"Congaree and Point Given are very close in talent," Baffert said. "Congaree is a big, good-looking horse and he's always been professional."
Zito is high on It's So Simple, and he expects a big race out of the son of Smart Strike, who is coming off a sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby after breaking from post 13 and having to go very wide turning for home. He'll be ridden by Aaron Gryder.
"I think he's been an improving horse," Zito said. "I thought he'd get better with time and distance. When he beat Distilled, he showed some quality right there. He bruised his foot after the allowance win and missed some time. We took a shot with him in the Florida Derby but he drew a terrible post. Starting from that post was a huge disadvantage and I thought he ran incredibly well."
But the one they all have to catch is Richly Blended, who drilled 6 furlongs in 1:10 3/5 last week. If there is one thing against him, it's that his sire Rizzi was a 6-furlong horse, but Richly Blended showed no signs of stopping in the one-mile Gotham, run in a sharp 1:35.
"I'm sure being a son of Rizzi, there will be some distance limitations," trainer Ben Perkins Jr. said. "But you'll never know until you try it."
Voodoo will have to step it up a notch after finishing a well-beaten third in the Gotham and a well-beaten second in the Whirlaway Stakes, but trainer Jimmy Jerkens feels he has a good deal of room for improvement.
"He definitely improved a lot last time," Jerkens said. "And he wasn't eating well going into the Whirlaway. It would be nice if he could tuck in behind the leaders and wait to
make his move. You can't get this horse angry, he has to be comfortable."
Paging broke his maiden in his third start last fall at DelawarePark. In his first start this year he drew the 11 post against Monarchos in a Gulfstream allowance and finished a well-beaten sixth. In his last start, he closed well to finish third to Burning Roma in the Tampa Derby.
"He got sick after the race against Monarchos," trainer Robert Connors said. "He lost a lot of ground in the Tampa race and it will serve as a good stepping stone to the Wood. He was the only horse that hit the board in that race and didn't have a race over the track."
The Wood Memorial is the first leg of the Big 3 Pick 3, a $1 national wager linking it with Keeneland's Toyota Blue Grass and Oaklawn's Arkansas Derby. Post time for the Wood is 5:12 p.m. EDT and the final leg of the sequence, the Arkansas Derby will go off at about 5:49 p.m. EDT. Last year's wager generated over $1.2 million in handle, a Pick 3 record. All three races can be seen live on ESPN from 5-6 p.m. EDT.