On a day that dawned sunny and mild, allowing a sealed muddy track to be upgraded to good at mid-card and fast by post time of the 84th Wood Memorial, War Pass was hustled to the front by Cornelio Velasquez, shadowed very closely by Inner Light.
That first quarter mile likely was the difference between victory and defeat for the odds-on Wood favorite. Inner Light, coupled with well regarded Court Vision, did his job as pace presser. The rabbit forced War Pass into early fractions of :22.46 and :46.07, demanding for any nine-furlong event around Aqueduct’s two turns, but especially so given the track condition.
Prado moved the winner into serious contention leaving the half-mile pole, at that point the only horse within striking distance of an upset. In the following furlong, Garrett Gomez got Court Vision under way with a strong run on the inside, but altered course way out into the middle of the course approaching the five-sixteenths pole.
In the stretch, War Pass was still holding them off, he, too, now several paths away from the rail. “I told (jockey Cornelio Velasquez) to drift off the fence because the rail was dead all day,” later explained trainer Nick Zito. “I’m sad that we didn’t win…but glad with the way he ran. We still have to salute the winner.”
The victory by Tale Of Ekati didn’t become clear until two jumps from the finish post. War Pass was toiling from his early exertions but Tale Of Ekati kept trying. It took a final furlong in a modest :13.92 to get the job done, 1:52.35 for the distance, the slowest Wood in 56 years.
The racetrack axiom is that if you run fast early you don’t run fast late. That certainly was the case Saturday.
“We were laying a little closer than I wanted him to be,” said trainer Barclay Tagg, who now has two Derby contenders in Tale Of Ekati and Big Truck. “But Edgar (jockey Prado) has an intuitiveness about him that has served pretty well for the last 30 years.”
The drying out Aqueduct surface was demanding throughout the afternoon. It took a toll on most front runners as the track became drier. The best paths seemed to be three or four wide of the inside rail but the middle of the surface, five and six paths outside, seemed more demanding as deep closers were unable to finish off their rallies.
“The jockey (Garrett Gomez) said he was slipping a bit on the track,” said trainer Bill Mott of third finisher Court Vision. “He dropped himself pretty far back and made a decent run to get third.” It probably was strong enough to get him into the Derby starting gate, although that’s not a certainty.
“I would think we would go to Kentucky and evaluate from there,” Mott said.
“We’ll take him to Kentucky and take it one day at a time,” Zito said of his juvenile champion. “If War Pass has a good month, we’ll see if we can make it to the Derby.”
It didn’t sound as if Mott or Zito were brimming with confidence in the moments following the Wood Memorial. And that’s probably for good reason.
[Ed. Note: An assessment of the victories by Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby and Recapturetheglory in the Illinois Derby tomorrow].