They had barely situated themselves on Irish War Cry's bandwagon when the masses started abandoning ship.
It took one lackluster 1 1/16-mile run around the Gulfstream Park track March 4 for the son of Curlin to go from unbeaten upstart who defeated the reigning juvenile champion to a 3-year-old on the outside looking in where his prospects for the first Saturday in May are concerned.
Trainer Graham Motion doesn't mince words or make excuses for his charge's seventh-place finish in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) last month, but what he has seen from the colt since has him hopeful said bad day was just that—a one-off aberration from a runner still getting a handle on his talent.
He also has never been one to force the pressure of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) onto a protege that wasn't giving off the right signals. Hence, Motion views the April 8 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) at Aqueduct Racetrack as Irish War Cry's opportunity to convince him his presence in the first leg of the Triple Crown is necessary.
"Obviously, he's going to have to step up and be competitive on Saturday otherwise he doesn't belong doing this—and I'm not going to force it to happen," Motion said.
Proving himself a solid Kentucky Derby contender didn't seem like it would be an issue for Irish War Cry in the aftermath of his 3 3/4-length win in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2). In just his third career start and first try against graded company, Isabelle de Tomaso's homebred looked like a star in the making when he led at every point of call and bounded to the wire under mild urging, unchallenged by multiple graded stakes winner Gunnevera or reigning juvenile champion Classic Empire.
With strong form over the track and quality contenders already defeated, there was ample reason to believe Irish War Cry would live up to his even-money favoritism when he returned in the Fountain of Youth. Instead, that outing shone a light on improvements still needed in his game as he chased Three Rules through the opening fractions before fading to seventh while Gunnevera galloped to the win.
"It was a real head-scratcher," Motion said of the Fountain of Youth. "I was a little surprised that (jockey) Joel (Rosario) chose to lay so close to the pace. We'd kind of discussed the thing that I really wanted to get him to settle. I would have preferred he come back off the pace.
"I think I would have learned a little bit more about my horse—and I certainly am not blaming Joel for the way he ran because, you know, he really ran an appalling race that day—but, I'd like to think he's going to settle on Saturday. And if he's not going to settle, he's going to have a hard time competing in these races."
With Rosario slated to ride grade 1 winner Practical Joke in Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland, Irish War Cry will have a new pilot for his 1 1/8-mile run in the Wood Memorial in Rajiv Maragh. The duo's outside post position in the eight-horse field should give them the opportunity to follow Motion's wish to see the colt relax off the lead. Irish War Cry did show in his rallying, 4 1/2-length maiden win at Laurel Park in November that he could come from off the pace.
"Right now we're just trying to get him back on track and I wanted to run him in the race where he has the best chance to show himself," Motion said.
Seven-time Eclipse Award winning-trainer Todd Pletcher already has a fistful of Derby contenders—including Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming. His enviable lineup could grow should Battalion Runner live up to his hype during his graded stakes debut in the Wood Memorial.
Owned by St. Elias Stable, Battalion Runner enters off a 1 1/4-length allowance win going 1 1/16-miles at Gulfstream Feb. 3, and was originally entered in the Florida Derby before being scratched in favor of Saturday's test. The son of Unbridled's Song will make his fourth career start and showed front-end brilliance last December when he broke his maiden by 8 3/4-lengths at Gulfstream Dec. 31.
"We feel like he's consistently run well fresh, and we've been training all along with either running in the Florida Derby or the following weekend in mind, so hopefully we have him fit enough and ready enough to run his best," said Pletcher, who will also saddle maiden winner Bonus Points in the Wood.
Tony Dutrow trainee Mo Town won the Remsen Stakes (G2) over the Aqueduct surface in November but was a well-beaten fifth during his seasonal bow as the 3-2 favorite in the Feb. 25 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
"He is proven over the Aqueduct racetrack, so that was the biggest decision maker (to run in the Wood Memorial)," said Dutrow. "We've been training him the same way and he's been responding to it, so I just kept things the way they've been."
Aqueduct Racetrack, Saturday, April 08, 2017, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Glennrichment (KY) Kendrick Carmouche 123 Rudy R. Rodriguez 15/1 2 2Mo Town (KY) Javier Castellano 123 Anthony W. Dutrow 6/1 3 3Battalion Runner (KY) John R. Velazquez 123 Todd A. Pletcher 2/1 4 4Bonus Points (MD) Luis Saez 123 Todd A. Pletcher 20/1 5 5True Timber (KY) Paco Lopez 123 Kiaran P. McLaughlin 12/1 6 6Stretch's Stone (NY) Manuel Franco 123 Bruce N. Levine 15/1 7 7Cloud Computing (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 123 Chad C. Brown 5/2 8 8Irish War Cry (NJ) Rajiv Maragh 123 H. Graham Motion 7/2
Aqueduct Racetrack, Saturday, April 08, 2017, Race 10