Five things to know for the Wood Memorial

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

April 7th, 2017

Saturday’s $750,000 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct represents a crossroads for four notable Kentucky Derby (G1) hopefuls. Battalion Runner needs to rack up the Derby points fast in his stakes debut, Irish War Cry and Mo Town need a form turnaround as well as a points boost, and Cloud Computing needs to take another big step forward in just his third career start.

Here are my five things to know for the Wood:

1. Todd Pletcher’s Battalion Runner looks to live up to his reputation as the 2-1 morning-line favorite. Two-for-two this winter at Gulfstream Park, the $700,000 Unbridled’s Song colt crushed a sprint maiden before a more prosaic success in a 1 1/16-mile allowance. Although a logical Florida Derby (G1) candidate, he instead let stablemate Always Dreaming take care of business at Gulfstream. Now that Always Dreaming won the Florida Derby in a gallop to earn 100 Derby points, Battalion Runner aims to follow suit in New York. His Kentucky Derby status is entirely dependent upon his Wood performance – just as Always Dreaming’s was in Florida.

You can read the Always Dreaming/Battalion Runner tag teaming in different ways. One is a positive/negative vibe: Always Dreaming was doing so fantastically well that the Florida Derby was a case of striking while the iron was hot, but Battalion Runner’s fluctuating targets give rise to uncertainty about him. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of Battalion Runner. Another, more logical, take is a positive for both: Pletcher has so much ammunition that he’s got to keep surveying the changing battlefield. Given how his Derby team has performed this season, it makes perfect sense.

(For whatever it’s worth, there’s a third option, labeled rampant speculation, that speaks extremely well of Battalion Runner. A Grade 1 win puts the seal on a stallion prospect’s resume. Always Dreaming took the first possible opportunity to get that done. Battalion Runner passed up that chance for a Grade 2, albeit one in his New York-based ownership’s backyard. If you really want to indulge in Derby fantasy thinking, could this placement be influenced by the firm belief that Battalion Runner will get his Grade 1 down the road? Again, just a flight of fancy, or a thought experiment run amok.)

2. Irish War Cry is on a retrieval mission after his first loss, a drubbing in the Fountain of Youth (G2). Trainer Graham Motion’s best guess to explain his seventh-place flop is a combination of being too forward early and regressing off his career best in the Holy Bull (G2).

The Wood strikes me as a remedy for both. Five weeks after a race in which he ran only about six furlongs in earnest, Irish War Cry should be fresh and ready to roll. He’s also eligible to be more relaxed now that Motion’s brought him back from Florida to his Maryland base at Fair Hill. The rider switch to Rajiv Maragh could suit the colt well, and being tactically drawn on the far outside post 7 is another plus. If Irish War Cry clicks with Maragh, we may see him reclaim the role of major Derby contender. With only 10 Derby points in the bank from the Holy Bull, the son of Curlin must bring his “A” game here.

3. Mo Town, similarly hopeful of a rebound, returns to the scene of his Remsen (G2) score. Like Irish War Cry, Mo Town has just 10 Derby points in his account, and needs to bounce back after a disappointing fifth in the Risen Star (G2). Report had it that the Tony Dutrow shipper didn’t really act on the Fair Grounds surface, and since we know he loves nine furlongs around Aqueduct, he’s entitled to do better here.

But in another respect, the Mo Town/Irish War Cry parallel doesn’t work. Irish War Cry toppled Gunnevera and champion Classic Empire with a bravura display in the Holy Bull. Even allowing for his rivals’ misfortune, and his gift set-up, Irish War Cry can boast a gaudy formline. Mo Town’s Remsen, in contrast, has fallen apart amid so many knocks on the form. The Uncle Mo colt has to rewrite that storyline by proving himself all over again versus better company. He also loses John Velazquez to Battalion Runner, but picks up Javier Castellano in compensation.

4. Cloud Computing, an honorable second in the Gotham (G3), aims to back up that promising stakes debut for Chad Brown. There’s no doubting his raw talent after a much-the-best score first out (despite a troubled start) and a trial-by-fire experience in the Gotham. Pitched straight into the Derby points race – which represented a doubly tough ask as a two-turn bow versus some seasoned graded runners – Cloud Computing responded. He fared by far the best of anyone chasing the pace, yielding only to the perfect set-up J Boys Echo, and finishing more than seven lengths clear of beaten favorite El Areeb.

The one concern is whether this is all coming too soon for a horse who didn’t begin racing until February 11. Of course, given the prevailing trend toward lightly raced types, that degree of inexperience may not matter as much in a relatively small field. It’s more of a liability in the Kentucky Derby, where you can’t afford to be a greenhorn. For the Wood at least, he’s eligible to keep up his rapid learning curve. He now gets Irad Ortiz Jr., with a 44% strike rate aboard Brown runners over the past 60 days.

5. True Timber has been beaten in all three Aqueduct preps this year, but the addition of Paco Lopez may be a spark. The Kiaran McLaughlin sophomore appears to be in search of his optimal running style. He broke his maiden from off the pace, and employed similar tactics when a remote third in the muddy Jerome (G3). In the Withers (G3) and Gotham, though, he was on the engine. That worked better in the paceless Withers, resulting in a second, than in the Gotham, where he retreated to fifth.

The Wood pace is likely to be decent. Last-out maiden romper Glennrichment figures to have early foot on the rail, with Mo Town and Battalion Runner set to press or at least keep close tabs from the next two posts. Stretch’s Stone is capable of sprinter speed that he may call upon early, especially if his swift half-mile work is an indication. Hence True Timber may end up biding his time for Lopez, who’s been winning with McLaughlin horses at a 38 percent clip of late. One definitely hoping for an honest tempo is Pletcher’s second stringer, Bonus Points, the Jerome runner-up and Withers fourth. Pletcher mentioned that a better pace scenario could help the hard-trying colt earn a check.

All of the stats are from the Brisnet PPs for the Wood – check them out for free.

Battalion Runner photo courtesy Lauren King/Coglianese Photography