NYRA is doing everything it can to regain Grade 1 status for the Wood Memorial. It even offered to juice the purse by a quarter-million dollars if a Grade 1 winner showed up. All the candidates passed. This leaves a field that probably wouldn't qualify as a Grade 2 if it were ranked objectively. But there are a couple of horses, who could go on to elevate the status of the race. Out West, Bob Baffert loves Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby but the way he is talking up Roadster hints he might love his "other" entrant a little more.

NYRA can’t catch a break. You wouldn’t expect to hear that about an organization that just got to pocket a quarter of a million dollars. However, it is money NYRA desperately wanted to spend.

At a time when NYRA endows relatively insignificant stakes with high six-figure lures, it inexplicably opted to slash the purse of the Wood Memorial, New York’s showpiece Triple Crown prep, to $750,000. This makes it the only final phase Derby qualifier not to offer a seven-figure payoff.

Horsemen reacted predictably. They took their best elsewhere. New York-based trainers demonstrating loyalty to their home circuit occasionally bring a top of the line 3-year-old to the Wood. This is how Bill Mott’s Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus and Kiaran McLaughlin’s Gotham winner Haikal, the big horses Saturday, wound up in this season’s renewal.

But home town loyalty doesn’t always rule. Chad Brown could have added a touch of luster last year by entering Eclipse champion Good Magic. He opted for the Blue Grass the same afternoon, which Good Magic won.

Inferior fields led to the Wood being reduced to a Grade 2, which makes it even more unattractive to the connections of top 3-year-olds.

NYRA got the message. In an effort to lure more Derby hopeful A-listers, it announced if there is a Grade 1 winner in the field, the purse will be jacked back up to $1 million. Only problem is, it can’t get any Grade 1 winners; not last year, not this year. So the purse stays at $750,000 and the field reflects the lesser reward. The horses to beat each have only one Grade 3 win each. If this Wood was graded as a normal stakes, it would be lucky to keep its Grade 2.

Prospects were bright for Grade 1 participation only a few weeks ago. Hopeful winner Mind Control wintered in New York, ostensibly to take the New York route to Louisville. There was little reason to doubt this was going to happen when he took the Jerome then ran a solid second in the Gotham. Alas, his connections surprised everyone when they in explicably decided to drop back to sprints, starting with the Bay Shore on the Wood undercard.

Breeders’ Futurity champion Knicks Go diverted from Tampa to Aqueduct for the Gotham, a step toward the Wood, but disappointed and will be a no show Saturday.

The Wood desperately needs a Kentucky Derby winner—probably two--if it is to regain Grade 1 stature. Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 is the last Wood winner to double at Churchill Downs.

Tacitus and Haikal have considerable upsides, so maybe NYRA can get lucky. But they also have potential holes. Tacitus got a big pace set-up in the Tampa Bay Derby. This might not happen every time. It certainly wouldn’t have if he had run in the Florida Derby.

Garrett O’Rourke, manager of Juddmonte Farms, owner of Tacitus, is an optimist. “Invariably, you are more likely to get those pace set-ups in big races than you are in allowance races. There is more on the line, so jockeys go for the gold earlier. I think that will hopefully benefit him in the Wood Memorial and, hopefully, down the line.”

Haikal is the opposite. On breeding, he is not meant to go nine furlongs. His half-brother, Takaful, was a wickedly fast winner of the Vosburgh. But seven furlongs was a stretch for him.

Haikal conquered a mile in the Gotham but the Wood will be his first attempt around two turns. McLaughlin is confident he is up to it but you never know until they do it. “Because of his pedigree and his brother, we were a little concerned that he would be just a one-turn horse,” McLaughlin said. But Takaful was just a run-off. He was very difficult. (Haikal’s) mind is great. He’s a different type of horse even though he’s a half-brother to Takaful. His attitude is great. He just does everything asked of him. So we don’t think nine furlongs should be a problem.”

I still have to be convinced Tax’s big Beyer Withers is legit. So I see the race coming down to these two, with the edge going to Tacitus—with small defensive plays on the two Jason Servis entries, because…well, you know.

Blue Grass lacks star power

The best thing going for the Wood is the Blue Grass also isn’t rich in star power, either, although it has a stronger bunch than will run in Queens. The Blue Grass was lowered to Grade 2 with the Wood. However, it seems closer to regaining top shelf prestige.

It was won last year by an Eclipse champion, Good Magic, who subsequently ran second in Louisville and later won the Haskell. A top performance or two down the road by its winner this year could bolster its case for regaining its Grade 1 ranking.

This would leave the Wood the only final Derby prep not offering at least $1 million or Grade 1 prestige, a double whammy that could negatively feed off itself.

There are no champions in this year’s Blue Grass. The only last out winner of a stakes is Somelikeithotbrown, who has yet to prove he is as effective on dirt as he is on turf and synthetics.

Nashua winner Vekoma and Kentucky Jockey Club winner Signalman were highly regarded until they ran third and seventh, respectively, in the Fountain of Youth, which was not flattered in the Florida Derby. Tampa record-setter Win Win Win was another hot prospect until disappointing when stretched out in the Tampa Bay Derby.

I don’t have a strong feeling on the race but I’ll most likely take a shot on Signalman. Ken McPeek, who is known for his patience, said before the Fountain of Youth that it was merely a step along the way. With Signalman needing major Derby qualifying points, the Blue Grass has to be a full go.

The other Baffert

Bob Baffert said he loves his two horses in the Santa Anita Derby. Eclipse champion Game Winner is no surprise. He’s a whisker away from being undefeated. “He’s talented, he’s gritty and he always shows up,” the trainer said on a conference call this week. “If he runs the same race (as in the Rebel), I’ll be fine with it. The next race is the big step forward. I don’t want a blowout this week.”

The enthusiasm Baffert expressed for his “other” starter, Roadster, might be revealing. Baffert said he considered Roadster his top Derby prospect until he ran third behind Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity. It turned out he had an excuse, a breathing problem, which has been corrected. He left no doubt of that when he returned from six months on the shelf to impressively win a one-mile allowance. “That race was phenomenal,” Baffert said. “I’ve always liked him. He’s shown flashes of brilliance. He’s a very live horse. I expect him to run a very big race.”

You’ve been put on alert.


I’ve been a lone voice in these parts against getting the federal government involved in racing. I wish it wasn’t the case but I feel vindicated by events of the past few days.

The tragedies at Santa Anita have captured scrutiny inside and now outside the sport. Everything I’ve been railing against became reality when California Sen. Diane Feinstein, wet her finger and stuck it up in the air to see which way public opinion is going.

Feinstein, who is not known for ever doing anything related to racing, rifled off a letter saying that racing should be halted at Santa Anita until an investigation could be completed into the deaths of 23 horses.

You know how long a federal investigation can take? Two words: Mueller Report.

Politicians: Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Progressive, Independent can’t help themselves. Any event that lends itself to widespread media coverage, as the horrific situation at Santa Anita has, is going to bring out the soap boxes.

This is happening without the feds having an official role in racing regulations. The sport is in enough trouble with dunderheads like the California Horse Racing Board in control. The thought of what might happen if Uncle Sam is ever given real jurisdiction ought to give pause to anyone arguing for a federal role in policing the game.