It's been a hectic week for trainer Bob Baffert's travel agent.
After announcing last weekend that McKinzie would not run in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Baffert revised the final preps for his other Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) hopefuls.
Justify, who had been slated to run in the April 14 Arkansas Derby (G1), was deputized to replace McKinzie in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby. Solomini was then switched from the $1 million Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2), also April 7, to the Arkansas Derby.
That game of musical preps also included one more change as Baffert entered Gary and Mary West's homebred Restoring Hope in the Wood Memorial, sending the son of Giant's Causeway cross-country off a maiden win in a last-minute bid to gain enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby.
"Restoring Hope is unknown in terms of class. He has always seemed like a nice, but not spectacular, horse," said Gary West, who added that his 2017 champion 3-year-old West Coast was not a known commodity at this time last year, either. "So you really never know until you run them against graded company."
The centerpiece of five graded stakes on the April 7 card at Aqueduct Racetrack, the Wood attracted a field of nine. With 100-40-20-10 points on the line in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, a victory would lock up a spot in the starting gate for the May 5 Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. A runner-up finish should also be good enough for a ticket to the Derby. For a horse like Restoring Hope, who drew post 8 for his stakes debut, the 1 1/8-mile test will be an all-or-nothing proposition.
"We're going to find out what he's made of," said Baffert, who captured the Wood with Bob and John (2006) and Congaree (2001). "He's ready ... He's bred to go a mile and a quarter. He has speed, and he's a big, strong, beautiful horse. I feel pretty good that he'll run well."
In his third start, Restoring Hope posted a 3 1/2-length win in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Santa Anita Park Feb. 2, and Baffert targeted the March 25 Sunland Derby (G3) for the Kentucky-bred's next start. When Restoring Hope lacked enough earnings to crack the overflow field for that race, Baffert needed a backup plan. That plan fell into place when McKinzie was sidelined, and Restoring Hope worked five furlongs in company with Solomini in a sparkling :59 4/5 April 2 at Santa Anita, the second-fastest of 81 works at that distance.
"Bob and I decided ... he would have to have a spectacular work, or we would not run in the Wood. He did, and we are running," said West, who won the 2002 Wood with Buddha. "Restoring Hope is training better than he has ever trained."
Another threat who needs a top-two finish in the race to keep Kentucky Derby hopes alive is Vino Rosso, owned by Mike Repole and the St. Elias Stable of Vinnie Viola.
Trained by four-time Wood winner Todd Pletcher, Vino Rosso broke his maiden at Aqueduct Nov. 11 and scored an allowance win at Tampa Bay Downs Dec. 22. In two subsequent stakes at Tampa Bay, the son of Curlin was third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) and, most recently, fourth in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), leaving the $410,000 purchase at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale with just seven points toward a spot in the Kentucky Derby.
"It's an enigma. He's great in the morning. Todd and (jockey John Velazquez) thought he was their best 3-year-old at one point. I'd like to get the Wood moved to 9 a.m.," said Repole, a native New Yorker seeking a second Wood win to go along with Outwork's score in 2016. "The only guess we have is that at the same spot in the two Tampa losses, when he got to the three-eighths pole on the far turn, he lost his momentum. Then, down the stretch, he galloped out past everyone. He did win over the track before that, but he didn't beat much, so maybe it's that track. He's won at Aqueduct before. He's training great, and Johnny and Todd are still high on him, but we need to see it in the afternoon. If he's fourth by six or first by three in the Wood, we won't be surprised with either outcome."
Vino Rosso will break from the outside post in the field of nine.
The likely favorite in the race, Godolphin Racing's Enticed, already has a Derby spot locked up. Winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill as a 2-year-old, the homebred son of Medaglia d'Oro rebounded from a disappointing fourth in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) in his 2018 debut to capture the Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct by 2 3/4 lengths and climb to a safe 63 points, fifth in the standings.
He's one of two graded stakes winners in a field with five horses who have only won maiden races.
"Enticed has done everything right since he walked in the barn. He's real classy and real athletic. Great bone structure, and he's fun to train," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who won the 2015 Wood for Godolphin with Frosted .
The Wood marks a return to two turns for the son of the multiple grade 1-winning mare It's Tricky, as the Gotham was contested at its former distance of a one-turn mile for the first time since 2005.
"We feel like he's always wanted a mile and an eighth or the mile and a quarter. He's a large colt with a big stride and very well bred,'" said McLaughlin, whose colt landed post 5. "We turned back in the Gotham, and we weren't sure if that was the right move at the time, but it worked out and proved to be the right move. He likes the cool weather, he likes (Aqueduct), and we feel the mile and an eighth will be perfect. There are no negatives. It's all positive."
The other eight starters can thank Mr. Amore Stable's Firenze Fire for the Wood purse rising from $750,000 to $1 million. A provision for an added $250,000 was tacked on to the race if a grade 1 winner entered, and while the hope was to land the 2-year-old champion Good Magic (whose connections opted for the grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass), Firenze Fire's victory in the Champagne Stakes (G1) triggered the bonus.
The Wood will give the son of Poseidon's Warrior starts in all four of New York's preps. He won the Jan. 13 Jerome Stakes, finished second in the Withers Stakes (G3), and was a troubled fourth in the Gotham. With 29 points, Firenze Fire is 19th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, and owner Ron Lombardi knows his 3-year-old needs to hit the board in the Wood to earn enough points and give trainer Jason Servis confidence to consider a start in the 1 1/4-mile Derby.
"If we can't finish in the money here, we probably shouldn't be running on the first Saturday in May, but I think he can surprise some people," said Lombardi, whose colt will break from post 2. "I think he can handle the distance. He's a fighter. He never gives up. In his last race, he had to check a few times and lost four or five lengths, but he keeps coming. If we get some points and make the Derby, we'll be ecstatic. The Derby has been my goal."
The Wood was downgraded to grade 2 status last year after failing to produce a Kentucky Derby winner since 2000. Ironically, the race had a renaissance in 2017 as Cloud Computing, who finished third, won the Preakness Stakes (G1), and the victorious Irish War Cry was second in the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1).
Aqueduct Racetrack, Saturday, April 07, 2018, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Heartfullofstars (KY) Dylan Davis 123 Philip D'Amato 20/1 2 2Firenze Fire (FL) Manuel Franco 123 Jason Servis 6/1 3 3Evaluator (NY) Kendrick Carmouche 123 Michael Dilger 20/1 4 4Old Time Revival (FL) Jeremy Rose 123 Kenneth Decker 6/1 5 5Enticed (KY) Junior Alvarado 123 Kiaran P. McLaughlin 6/5 6 6Catch Twenty Two (KY) Luis R. Reyes 123 Naipaul Chatterpaul 50/1 7 7King Zachary (KY) Robby Albarado 123 Dale L. Romans 20/1 8 8Restoring Hope (KY) Flavien Prat 123 Bob Baffert 4/1 9 9Vino Rosso (KY) John R. Velazquez 123 Todd A. Pletcher 9/2
Aqueduct Racetrack, Saturday, April 07, 2018, Race 10