Gotham Stakes (gr. III) winner Shagaf and Jerome Stakes (gr. III) winner Flexibility will both start in the $1 million Wood Memorial (gr. I) April 9 at Aqueduct Racetrack, trainer Chad Brown said April 2.
Brown confirmed the plans after working the pair and Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) hopeful My Man Sam at Belmont Park with an eye on final-round preps for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Working as a team, Shadwell Stable's Shagaf and Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence's Flexibility covered four furlongs on the training track in :48 2/5. Brown said the colts, who started and finished on even terms, got their first eighth of a mile in :13 1/5.
"This is the first week that I worked them together," Brown said. "Shagaf and Flexibility are generally good work horses. They had plenty left and were well within themselves—pretty even work. That would be a normal half-mile work for them."
Undefeated Shagaf will be ridden in the Wood Memorial by Irad Ortiz Jr., who piloted him to a 1 1/4-length victory in the Gotham.
In the weeks since the Gotham, Shagaf has been schooled at the starting gate, and has undergone practice sessions loading onto a van. Brown said the colt has done very well in both exercises.
"The horse is a little quirky; particularly with tight spots," Brown said. "If he decides he doesn't want to do something, he will stick his toes in there. He won't get mean or hot or aggressive, he just won't do it. Going into the starting gate was a problem early on and loading into vans was a problem. Sometimes going into the saddling enclosure is a problem, but we can avoid that by saddling outside of it. But, unfortunately, we can't avoid the starting gate or the van.
"My staff and the gate crew have been working with him and he has made a lot of progress. We've been schooling him going into the van since the Gotham, and he has been going right in, and the same with the gate. All in all, I'm proud of the horse's progress mentally in terms of being agreeable to the stuff we want him to do."
Flexibility, who will be ridden by Manny Franco in the Wood Memorial, is coming off a layoff. After winning the Jerome to open his 3-year-old campaign on Jan. 2, Flexibility finished fourth as the favorite in the grade III Withers at Aqueduct Jan. 30.
"I think Flexibility can be competitive in the Wood, particularly with the way he is training—he is training really well," Brown remarked. "I think the layoff has done him well. As far as where he needs to be numbers-wise to compete with the top group of 3-year-old dirt horses, I think the race will do him well for his next start after that. If he is able to run good enough in the Wood, and grab some more (qualifying) points for the Derby, I think his second start off the layoff will be his best.
"We're trying to accomplish two things here. Obviously, we would love the horse to win, but if he just runs well, and earns his way into the Derby with both a good performance and points, I'm inclined to take him to Kentucky, knowing his second start off a layoff will be his better start."
Also working for Brown Saturday at Belmont was Majestic Affair, who will run in next Saturday's $400,000 Carter Handicap (gr. I) at Aqueduct. He worked in company with My Man Sam, and was timed in :50 for the four-furlong work.
Lady Sheila Stable's Wood Memorial hopeful Matt King Coal wrapped up his major preparations for the race with a lengthy breeze the morning of March 30, according to trainer Linda Rice.
A one-length winner of a first-level optional claiming contest over a stakes-caliber field on March 6, Matt King Coal was clocked for a seven-furlong maintenance move in 1:25 1/5, the second and final planned workout before Wood.
"I decided to only give him two works into the race," said Rice. "He came back after that race and worked three-quarters really nice. With his last breeze on Wednesday, he went beautifully; so we're ready."
Matt King Coal was forced to skip his original target of the Jerome in January after the colt developed a fever in December. The Florida-bred son of Cool Coal Man regrouped with a trio of works in February and was nominated for the Gotham on March 5 before Rice opted instead for the 1 1/16-mile optional claimer that ultimately attracted Blue Grass entrant My Man Sam and the stakes-aimed Mo Power.
"I was in a little bit of a rush to get him back and that's why I chose the allowance race over the Gotham," Rice said. "Maybe if I had gotten a fourth breeze in him, we might've gone with the Gotham but, at the time, I felt like I barely had him ready to go. So I chose the allowance race and then that came up so tough. But he ran great and we're very excited about the Wood. It's a little added distance, tougher competition, but we're as ready as we can be.
"It can be a little intimating to jump right into a grade I but I think we've taken all the natural steps. He broke his maiden and we gave him time last fall. He was running fast numbers and he looked like a nice colt, so I wanted to give him a chance to grow up before I threw him into the deep end of the pool."
Affectionately known around the barn as "Matty"—"Unless he's misbehaving, then it's 'Matthew,' " Rice added—the leggy bay has posted back-to-back wins and a close second-place finish over the dirt, all with front-running trips with regular jockey Jose Ortiz, who will retain the mount for the Wood. His worst effort was a third-place finish when he debuted on the grass last summer at Saratoga Race Course after Rice had purchased him as a 2-year-old-in-training for Sheila Rosenblum's stable for $250,000.
"It's surprising that he has the speed he has because when you look at him, and when I bought him at the OBS April sale a year ago, I was just shocked that a horse of his stature could be that fast," said Rice. "And Jose thought the same way; when he breaks from the gate, he's surprised that he has that kind of speed."
Ortiz, who clinched his second consecutive Aqueduct inner track meet title last weekend, will retain the mount on Matt King Coal.
"There are certain things about it; he's been two turns already but he's never been off the lead yet so that, of course, leaves an unanswered question, and I've still got the blinkers on him" Rice said. "I don't really anticipate making any changes going into the race. We're just going to let it unfold and let Jose figure it out. The less instruction the better. Jose has got great instincts and we're just going to let it roll."
Trainer Leah Gyarmati reported Saturday morning that all is well with her Wood Memorial hopeful Adventist ahead of next weekend's race.
Adventist had his final breeze March 31, working in company with graded stakes-placed In Equality. The duo earned an official six-furlong time of 1:14.55.
"(Adventist) is doing fantastic," said Gyarmati. "He's been on a regular breeze schedule, his breezes have been great: strong gallops to the pole and really good gallop-outs. So it's probably been more work than it looks like on paper.
"The three-quarters the other day was really the gallop out," she said. "He went five-eighths and galloped out three-quarters and ended up galloping out the full mile. I couldn't ask for anything better, he's doing really well."
The Any Given Saturday colt will be coming into the Wood off a pair of third-place finishes in Kentucky Derby preps, finishing 1 3/4 lengths behind Sunny Ridge in the Withers and two lengths behind Shagaf in the Gotham, despite a few displays of greenness in both races.
"I think that comes with racing experience that he'll just have to get," said Gyarmati. "And I don't think he was always as green as it looked; there was a lot of bumping going on and it wasn't just him. I thought he was pretty professional when he got walloped a few times and he just kept on digging in and outfinished the horses he was bumping with. He's got some fight in him."
Despite only a maiden victory currently in his win column, Adventist's stakes placings have earned him 12 points towards the Kentucky Derby, with the Wood Memorial worth another 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers.
"Obviously, when you have a horse with talent and they're really giving you a big effort, you wonder if you're one bump or one duck in from being second or winning that race because you lose momentum when that happens," she said. "But that's tempered with being very excited about having a nice horse. I try not to cry too much."
Kendrick Carmouche, Adventist's jockey for the Withers and Gotham, will be aboard again next weekend.
In Equality, most recently sixth in the Risen Star (gr. II) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots Feb. 20, could make an appearance on the Wood Memorial undercard. In Equality ran twice on the grass before breaking his maiden on the dirt and running third in the Jerome. The Quality Road colt is eligible for a 1 1/16-mile turf allowance in the condition book for Saturday, Gyarmati said, and would likely be entered there if he's ready in time.
"The whole trip (to the Risen Star) took a lot out of him and he probably wasn't at his best down there," she explained. "But it was a good race, it was a pretty salty field. So he's back up here; I gave him a couple of weeks off out in the round pen and he's started back training. I'm leaning towards trying him back on the grass first, he can do both, turf or dirt; I don't know where he's better yet but we'll see. We'll maybe point for the grass race, see how that goes and then make a decision after that."