SOUTH OZONE PARK, April 6, 2012—For Gemologist, the question came as he approached the sixteenth pole. He appeared to be trying hard but his ears betrayed him; he was running, but idling, too.

For horseplayers, the question was how much money do you want to win on Alpha, who overcame a first turn incident and was now charging down the center of Aqueduct Race Track? Surely he would get up.

But Gemologist passed the only tests that matter: the class test; the gut-check; the all-important eyeball test. And he passed the latter with flying colors. In fact, he was drawing away at the finish of the Resorts World Casino NY Wood Memorial.

Had the field gone around again, the neck margin might have been open lengths, who knows? When you engage him, he has the right answer.

On the Left Coast, meanwhile, it was déjà vu all over again. At the sixteenth pole, Santa Anita Derby favorite Creative Cause was holding off I’ll Have Another. Or so it looked.

The momentum that Mario Gutierrez had gained with I’ll have Another was relentless, then so was Creative Cause, coming again, inching forward, inching his way toward his rival and the payoff post.

Photo finish!

As an aside, including the Carter Handicap, three Grade 1s, decided by a grand total of a neck, were races that were deservedly won but events in which there were no losers.

It’s a cliche often used, but the game truly doesn’t get any better than it was today.

In Queens, the Wood Memorial was eventful, especially for the bookend runners; Alpha from the pole and The Lumber Guy from the extreme outside.

It was Tiger Walk who contributed to The Lumber Guy’s issues, breaking to the outside and forcing Cornelio Velasquez to steady, remaining in the clear.

That done, he set sail for the lead but at that point Velasquez couldn’t slow down the run-off as he pulled the rider along for the first half mile.

Alpha, meanwhile, was forced to avoid an inside speed-jam, checking over heels midway of the first turn by Ramon Dominguez, riding for only the second day since separating his clavicle several weeks ago in a spill.

For his part, Gemologist was getting the stalking trip he wanted, sacrificing ground loss for clear running, sitting off the flanks of The Lumber Guy and My Adonis.

Soon after entering the final bend, Javier Castellano set sail with the winner then confidently sat chilly awaiting the straightaway. Not long after that, Castellano asked for a second move, got it, took the lead, then Gemologist took his turn to wait on the competition.

And when he and Castellano saw Alpha charging up outside, Gemologist re-engaged and held Alpha safe before drawing away in the last few strides to the eventual narrow winning margin.

On the other side of the country, Gutierrez was doing with I’ll Have Another what Castellano did with Gemologist a half hour earlier.

The young man was riding in the biggest race of his life and performed like some wily veteran, keeping his mount out in the clear, riding as if he were on the favorite and horse to beat, wanting to make sure that nothing went wrong.

“Mario Gutierrez for President,” shouted winning trainer Doug O’Neill at the end of a television interview. “I feel like I want to cry,” O’Neill continued. “I see people on television getting all emotional and I can’t understand it. Hey, Bob Baffert doesn’t cry; I’m not going to cry.”

In that context, hope O’Neill set his DVR. He will see a side of Bob Baffert that not many people in this game have never seen; an emotional Baffert recalling how at the time a herd of elephants were stomping on his chest he was thinking about Bode, his son, and that’s when, understandably, he lost it.

Hopefully, Baffert’s heart is good and strong because two members of his three-play Santa Anita Derby entry, Blueskiesnrainbows and Paynter, finished third and fourth respectively, the former losing by the length of the noses of both I’ll Have Another and Creative Cause, a half length behind after making all the running.

Compared to the 1:50.96 required by Gemologist at windswept Aqueduct, where strong northerly gusts up to 25 m.p.h. wrecked havoc with the fractional times all afternoon, the three California colts were racing through the same 9 furlongs in a spritely 1:47.88.

For the favorite, the loss of Creative Cause was a bit reminiscent of the defeat of Union Rags in the Florida Derby. There was no loss of stature; only a horse race and a bigger payday.

If yesterday’s protagonists all come back well and remain at the level demonstrated in the last two weeks after which can be added the results of next weekend’s Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass, where last year’s champion of this class, Hansen, awaits, this Derby is shaping up with the potential of an all-time classic. These are terrific colts, lacking neither talent, nor class, nor courage.

If not overly dramatic occurs next weekend; think of the undefeated Gemologist as a slight 5-1 Derby favorite, followed closely by Union Rags and Creative Cause, with I’ll Have Another and most likely Hansen on top of the parimutuel heap.

Have a hunch? Bet a bunch. Right now, this year’s class is right on time.