amNY at the Track | Previewing the Wood Memorial, New York City’s biggest Kentucky Derby prep

Kentucky Derby contender Hit Show to run in Wood Memorial
Hit Show, trained by Brad Cox, won the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 11, but only got a 91 Beyer speed figure in doing so.
Walter Wlodarczyk/NYRA

The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack this Saturday remains a prestigious race on the road to the Kentucky Derby — but it’s been a long time since the winner went on to later wear the garland of roses on the first Saturday in May.

You have to go back to 23 years ago, to 2000, when Fusaichi Pegasus pulled off the Wood Memorial-Kentucky Derby double. The race has produced just one other Derby winner since then: Funny Cide, who finished second to Empire Maker in the 2003 Wood Memorial before winning the Kentucky Derby.

From the looks of things, trainer Brad Cox has the two horses in the Wood Memorial field who look capable of breaking the race’s Derby drought: Hit Show and Slip Mahoney.

Both horses have been improving with every start. Hit Show has the edge in terms of success, having won the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct at the same distance as the Wood Memorial with relative ease. Slip Mahoney, meanwhile, made his stakes debut last out in the Gotham Stakes, also at Aqueduct, and finished a hard-closing third on a sloppy track. 

Despite breaking from the far outside, Hit Show should not only be a well-deserving favorite in the Wood Memorial, but also the eventual winner. Manny Franco, who won the jockey championship at Aqueduct during the winter meet, will be in the saddle.

Slip Mahoney needs a top-three effort to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, and he should. The Arrogate colt has experience winning on the lead, and he might have a chance to steal the race in a stalking position behind the main speed in the race, Arctic Arrogance.

The one longshot with a chance to pull a huge upset, however, is General Banker. All this workhorse seems to do is hit the board. He’s finished third in the Jerome Stakes, Withers and Gotham, and has finished in the top three in each of his last six starts at Aqueduct. A horse for the course deserving of inclusion in your exotic bets, at least.

Top picks: Hit Show, Slip Mahoney, General Banker

Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby quick hits

Raise Cain wins Gotham Stakes on road to Kentucky Derby
Can Raise Cain improve off his Gotham Stakes victory in his next prep for the Kentucky Derby?NYRA/Walter Wlodarczyk

Saturday will also see the last two big Kentucky Derby prep races this season besides the Wood Memorial with the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park in California.

The Blue Grass Stakes will feature a heavy favorite in Tapit Trice, who overcame a bad start and traffic trouble to win the Tampa Bay Derby last out; and Raise Cain, who pulled off a stunning upset in winning the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct last month.

But neither horse ran any socks off in winning their most recent preps. Tapit Trice’s 88 Beyer speed figure in winning the Tampa Bay Derby was just two points slower than Raise Cain’s Gotham triumph.

The environment’s ripe for an upset, and you’d be wise to find a longshot to steal this one. I’m going with Hayes Strike, an impressive winner of the Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park last out. He relished the Laurel dirt after an 8th place performance in the Leonatus Stakes at Turfway Park, which Raise Cain ran in ahead of his Gotham Stakes win. At 15-1 on the morning line, he figures to go off at a great price.

As for the Santa Anita Derby, the clear-cut favorite is Practical Take, the decisive winner of the San Felipe Stakes last out. The two runners-up in that race – Geaux Rocket Ride and Skinner – are back to try and defeat him, along with National Treasure, the third place finisher in the Sham Stakes back in January who’s been largely sidelined the rest of the Derby trail. 

The race is clearly Practical Take’s to lose; he was much the best in the San Felipe, and I don’t see any reason how he could regress unless the Santa Anita Derby’s extra sixteenth of a mile proves a bit too far. National Treasure has a shot at beating him just on talent and pedigree alone, but he’s got an awful lot of rust to shake off to beat Practical Take. Skinner, meanwhile, looks like a horse that wants more distance; I’m just not sure he’s got enough talent or speed to overcome the others.

Blue Grass Stakes picks: Hayes Strike, Raise Cain, Sun Thunder

Santa Anita Derby picks: Practical Take, National Treasure, Skinner

Post-parade notes

• Great horses overcome adversity and find a way, and that’s what Forte did in last Saturday’s Florida Derby. Breaking from the far outside, he was spun wide into the Gulfstream Park clubhouse turn and shuffled to the back of the field. But Forte and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. bided their time. On the far turn, however, it looked like Forte wasn’t going to have enough in the tank, and he backpedaled a bit. Yet the juvenile champion colt re-rallied in the homestretch and overtook leader Mage just before the wire. It wasn’t his fastest or best performance (he got a 95 Beyer figure, a drop of about four points), but he’s got the guts – and now the experience in a crowded field – to overcome traffic trouble in the Kentucky Derby. In my opinion, he’s still the one to beat the first Saturday in May.

• Angel of Empire took another big step forward with a powerful win in the Arkansas Derby, bolstering his resume even further after an upset win in the Risen Star Stakes. He’s emerged as trainer Brad Cox’s best Kentucky Derby hopeful, as he has consistently improved and run faster with every start. Unless Practical Move performs big later today in the Santa Anita Derby, Angel of Empire should be the clear second-choice on Derby Day. As for Reincarnate, he took a significant step backward in a race that he had to win, and should have won, off a gutsy effort in the Rebel Stakes. His best days are still ahead of him, but his connections would be wise to sit the Kentucky Derby out and point to either a dirt mile campaign or gearing up for late summer success.