For years a fixture at Belmont Park’s Fall Championship Meet, where its victors included four-time winner Forego (1974-’77)’ three-time winner Kelso (1961-’63) and two-time winners Sword Dancer (1959-’60), Slew o’Gold (1983-’84), Cigar (1995-’96) and Lido Palace (2001-’02), the Woodward was moved to Saratoga in 2006, where Premium Tap (2006) and Lawyer Ron (2007) were winners. Curlin later defeated Lawyer Ron in Belmont Park’s Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the slop at Monmouth Park, defeating a field that included Lawyer Ron.
The Woodward is also prominent in the resumes of Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed, as well as Gun Bow, Roman Brother, Alysheba, Lemon Drop Kid and Ghostzapper, all of whom won the Woodward as four-year-olds.
“[The New York Racing Association] is so pleased with the decision the connections have made to run Curlin in the Woodward,” said Paul “P.J.” Campo, NYRA vice-president and director of racing. “He’s here at Saratoga, he’s happy here, he’s training well and the Woodward comes at the perfect time for him. The Wooward is one of NYRA’s most prestigious stakes and has been a great addition to the Saratoga stakes line-up. Having Curlin run in the Woodward will be a great thing for Saratoga and a great thing for racing.”
Of all of Curlin’s fans, none is as devout as trainer Steve Asmussen, who has traveled with him throughout the world and who is stabled at Saratoga.
“I cannot speak for what he means to anybody else,” Asmussen said. “I think the interest level on him here is as high as anywhere we have gone. ‘Where’s Curlin running?’ has definitely come out of people’s mouths. With the announcement that he will be running here, I am anxious to see the turnout.”
Asmussen has scheduled another workout for Curlin for next Monday morning: a likely six-furlong move with Hawaii Calls, a four-year-old who has been racing for Jackson and Asmussen in the Midwest. Asmussen likes the seven-day workout space for last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, Preakness and Jockey Gold Cup winner, and the 2008 Dubai World Cup winner.
“That’s the schedule; I like that,” Asmussen said. “I’m actually going to send Hawaii Calls up here. The following work will be (his toughest). Last year, we had great workmate and a similar schedule for him. That was beneficial for him.”
Coming into Wednesday’s card, Asmussen was a winner behind Todd Pletcher in the trainer standings with six victories. Asmussen has started only 20 horses and he doesn’t know if he will be able to sustain this pace with the amount of runners in his stable.
“I don’t think we have the numbers for it.” Asmussen said. “Of the winners we had, that was their one win of the meet. I didn’t schedule to run back here. We had some two-year-olds that were coming off solid races. I think they made the most of their chances here.”
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Divine Park, winner of Belmont Park’s prestigious Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile) over subsequent Grade 1 Whitney winner Commentator, worked four furlongs on Saratoga’s fast dirt track in 47.36 on Tuesday morning in preparation for a start in the Woodward.
“He worked great,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “He looked great.”
When asked about the prospect of running against defending Horse of the Year Curlin in the Woodward, McLaughlin said, “I mean, you don’t want to run against the Horse of the Year if you don’t have to, but yet we’re kind of excited about it. All we can do is increase our value if we beat him. If we finish second or third, oh well, we got beat by Curlin. So, we have a top horse who is doing very well.”
McLaughlin also said that Shadwell Stable’s Lucky Island will run in the Grade 1, $250,000 Forego Handicap at seven furlongs on the same day as the Woodward. Recent Grade 2 Alfred G. Vanderbilt winner Abraaj, also owned by Shadwell, was under consideration for the Forego as well, but instead will be pointed to the Grade 1Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont Park on September 27th.
McLaughlin also said that Danak, who was vanned off after Sunday’s Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap, “seems to be okay.”
“He lost his shoe, a little cut-up, but he’s okay,” McLaughlin said. “He just struggled with the ground. I don’t think he got in a fight with any of the other horses; he just fought himself and the ground. So, he’s okay.”
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Hall of Fame training Nick Zito may be looking to run Authur Hancock’s Wanderin Boy against Curlin and Divine Park in the Woodward. The 7-year-old is coming off an allowance win by 3¼ lengths here at Saratoga on July 28. The Woodward is a weight-for-age event, with three-year-olds carrying 121 pounds and older horses 126 pounds.
“We’ve tried to beat every big horse that we could,” said Zito, who ruined Big Brown’s Triple Crown Bid with Da’Tara in the Belmont Stakes and nearly beat Big Brown again with Coal Play in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Sunday. “He had a wonderful prep race. He likes Saratoga. I think there’s a good possibility (for him to run in the Woodward). This is certainly a good spot for him.”
Last year, Wanderin Boy led for most of the race before being overtaken by Lawyer Ron to finish second in the Whitney. In 2006, after winning the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap, Wanderin Boy was second to Bernardini in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Also in that same year, Wanderin Boy was second to Horse of the Year Invasor.
Even with strong finishes against previous champions, Zito is hoping Wanderin Boy can give Curlin a challenge by carrying different weight.
“Obviously, I have all of the respect for Curlin,” Zito said. “You have to respect him, and I am going to respect the Horse of the Year”
With less than three weeks away from the Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes, presented by Shadwell Farms, for three-year-olds going 1¼ miles on Saturday August 23, Zito has several options one horse for the race.
Coal Play nearly had the Grade 1 Haskell won before Big Brown caught him late in the stretch for a 1 ¾-length victory, while his stablemate, Cool Coal Man, rallied for third. Robert V. LaPenta owns both Coal Play and Cool Coal Man, who won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth earlier this year at Gulfstream Park.
LaPenta and Zito may be looking at the Travers for Da’Tara, who got caught in a speed duel with Mint Lane in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy.
“I don’t know, yet,” Zito said about his Travers consideration. “Cold Play – no way. Cool Coal Man is a possibility. Obviously, Da’Tara is my best choice. He’s my No. 1 choice for that race.”
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Flying Zee Stables’ I Lost My Choo is expected to be a prohibitive favorite in Thursday’s running of the $150,000 Statue of Liberty, which is part of the New York Stallion Stakes Series and will be run at 1 1/16 miles on the turf for three-year-old fillies.
The daughter of Western Expression has five wins and two thirds from eight career starts. She most recently took the Grade 3 Virginia Oaks at Colonial Downs on July 19th by a length and a half against open company, but will now face a restricted field of five other fillies who have no turf stakes wins on their resumes.
“Every horse we run up here is pressure, so, now there is extra pressure for this race,” Serpe said. “I put enough pressure on myself. We’re always under pressure. We don’t want to do anything to short her chances of putting on a good performance.
“If it was that easy they would just mail you a check. You know, you have to respect the fact that there are some horses who haven’t run on the turf. They might run well. We’re looking at a soft turf probably. It could be [an issue]. Some horses really don’t prefer that. I’ve never really run her on a soft, soft turf so I hope it’s not an issue. But it could be for any of us in the race.”
Study Abroad, trained by Rick Dutrow, Jr. is one of the horses who has never tried turf before. She has, however, performed well on dirt in other New York Stallion Stakes Races with a second place finish in the Park Avenue Stakes at Aqueduct in April and a 5-1/2 length victory in the Cupecoy’s Joy Stakes two back at Belmont Park.
Leo O’Brien-trained Western Slang broke her maiden and won an “a other than” allowance over turf and may be viewed by some as the most logical candidate to upset I Lost My Choo. Ommadon’s Frenzy, Talbots Shopper, and Raffie’s Treasure round out the field.
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The giveaway item for Sunday, August 10 will be a free Saratoga cushion seat with each paid admission, while supplies last.
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Eugene Griffith, a longtime exercise rider for trainer Joe Aquilino, died Monday morning at Saratoga Hospital. Griffith, who had been battling cancer, was 82.
A memorial service will be held after the races Saturday at the Anchor Inn on Saratoga Lake.
“Gene was a fun guy; and always looking to help people,” Aquilino said. “He began galloping horses for me in 1977, and was walking hots for me until just recently. He will be missed because everyone loved him.”