Saturday's 90th running of the $1 million Wood Memorial, to be televised on NBCSports with the Santa Anita Derby from 5:30-7 p.m., could very well provide the May 3 Kentucky Derby favorite. It is a deep and talented field of 11 three-year-old thoroughbreds.
"My opinion is the favorite for the Derby comes out of this race," said Uncle Sigh's trainer, Gary Contessa, whose colt narrowly lost both the Withers and Gotham Stakes to Samraat, trained by Lowell's Rick Violette, also an entrant tomorrow from post eight of 11 horses.
Samraat is listed as 7-2 on the morning line, while Uncle Sigh is 5-1 behind the favorite Social Inclusion, coming in off two impressive Florida wins at Gulfstream Park. Post time is 5:40 p.m.
"If Social Inclusion wins, hands down, he'll be the Derby favorite," continued Contessa, "and if you beat him, then you're going to be one of the favorites. The whole Derby picture is so cloudy right now, and I think the Wood is going to produce the Derby favorite if he does it impressively, or if it's Social Inclusion or Samraat. All eyes will be on the Wood this year."
Social Inclusion enters Saturday's race off an allowance win in which he earned a 111 Beyer speed figure which towers over the rest of the field. Despite three nice workouts since the March 12 race, the feeling here is that he may "bounce" off that race, regressing from a peak effort. Also, the Pioneer of the Nile colt likes to be in front, which may force him to use too much early speed from his outside post position of 11 horses.
Owner Ronald Sanchez disagrees.
"Our plan was to come here for the Wood and then go directly to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore (May 17), but last time he ran so good we started thinking about the Derby and the Triple Crown," he said. "This horse is really special and if you see the workouts, he's floating. Last Saturday he went four furlongs in 46 and 4/5 seconds and galloped out so easy. He's a classy horse, and you have to give him the chance. He's a professional horse. We respect all the horses, but we're not scared of anybody."
Social Inclusion needs to finish within the top three horses to earn enough points to be included in the Kentucky Derby if it is oversubscribed. He has no graded stakes points to date.
Lowell's Violette, whose Samraat is undefeated in five starts with earnings of $583,200 and enough Derby points already, agrees with Sanchez, to a point.
"Social Inclusion is obviously a very talented horse, but there are some real horses in this race," said Violette, who trains the Noble Causeway colt for Leonard Riggio's My Meadowview Farms. Riggio is the chairman of Barnes and Noble, Inc.
"I think we've got a strong hand in this race because our horse will do anything the jockey (Jose Ortiz) asks. If we're going to break running and they decide to give us the lead, it will be a controlling lead. If someone else wants the lead, they're welcome to it. There's no question we want to win -- it's a $1 million race, a Grade 1, it's in our backyard. Our objective is to run our 'A' race without leaving everything on the table, which is greedy, but then, everyone is in the same boat."
Samraat's three workouts since his Gotham win have been geared toward building stamina, suggesting the colt my not go for the early lead.
Another horse to watch, also trained by Violette, is Financial Mogul, running in the Grade 3, $300,000 Bay Shore Stakes at seven furlongs. Owned by longtime clients Seth Klarman and William Lawrence of Klaravich Stables, this $185,000 yearling purchase was also nominated to the Triple Crown, but the parties have determined his future may lie within the sprint distances. He will be a nice price in race 8, breaking post number three. Here are my Wood Memorial picks.
WOOD MEMORIAL (5:40 p.m.)
Win -- Samraat (8)
Place -- Social Inclusion (11)
Show -- Harpoon (4)
Longshot Special -- Los Barrachos (5)
Paul Daley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org