How to find Kentucky Derby clues from a prep: 2001 Wood Memorial

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

April 2nd, 2020

In this strangely quiet weekend that should have been bursting with informative Kentucky Derby (G1) preps, thoughts turn to past editions in happier times. My memories of the 2001 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct are mixed, the satisfaction of finding the right take-away undermined by my failure to use it come the first Saturday in May.

The commanding winner of the Wood was Bob Baffert’s Congaree, who shipped east for his stakes debut since stablemate Point Given was the colossus at Santa Anita. Does that embarrassment of riches sound familiar? But the beaten Wood favorite, Monarchos, ran a fine race in second. Indeed, at the time I thought it set Monarchos up perfectly for the Derby, more so than Congaree’s performance did for him.

Thus the 2001 Wood offers a case study in recognizing a hollow win versus a productive prep loss, revealing potential clues for the Kentucky Derby.

Monarchos went off as the 9-10 Wood favorite after his dominant victory in the Florida Derby (G1), where he extended his winning streak to three with a dynamic late kick. Conversely, Congaree had shown high speed in his Santa Anita maiden and allowance romps, and he figured to hook up early with front-running Gotham (G3) winner Richly Blended. Congaree’s two-turn experience, and flair, suggested he would get the better of Richly Blended, but would they both set it up for Monarchos?

Congaree proved his class in being able to put away Richly Blended and stay comfortably clear of Monarchos down the lane. If the Derby were 1 1/8 miles, the result was pretty conclusive.

But if you tried to extrapolate how the rematch would shape up going 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs, the picture looked very different. Congaree’s early aggressiveness down the backstretch was absolutely the right move at Aqueduct. Yet in the Derby, he was at high risk of getting torched by a hot pace, thanks to the presence of Songandaprayer. And even if Congaree avoided that plausible scenario, his stretch run at Aqueduct had the vibe of a horse not looking for any more ground.

Monarchos, on the other hand, turned in the kind of effort from a horse wanting at least another furlong. His rally was more gradually sustained than eye-catching, but his gallop-out was powerful. From an objective standpoint, Monarchos posted the same Brisnet ratings as he did in the Florida Derby – 108 Speed and 103 Late Pace. Contrast that with Congaree’s 98 Late Pace in the Wood, a hint that he’d be vulnerable against a strong-closing Monarchos in different circumstances.

With this combination of visual and Brisnet ratings evidence for Monarchos, you didn’t need to take trainer intent to heart. To round out the case, though, John Ward had made no secret of his methodology going into the Wood. The game plan was for Monarchos to get in a useful prep that would move him forward for the Derby, not run his brains out again after a monster winter at Gulfstream. Once more, the contrast with Congaree is instructive: the Baffert colt needed a big effort in the Wood to make the Derby (in those days by graded earnings, before the point system was in play).

The what-have-you-done-for-me-lately crowd dismissed Monarchos on Derby Day, sending him off as the 10-1 sixth choice. The rest, of course, is history as he relished the pace meltdown to win in 1:59.97, still the second-fastest Derby behind the immortal Secretariat’s 1:59 2/5 (when times were in fifths). While Congaree could not confirm the Wood form, he was a massive third, sticking on better than I’d thought to lose second by a whisker to Invisible Ink.

So why did I have the sense to parse the Wood but not pick the Derby winner? I’d been besotted by Point Given, ever since his victory in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile (G3), and simply couldn’t see anyone beating the 9-5 favorite. His tame fifth in the Derby, the only time in his life he finished out of the exacta, still stings. The ensuing two jewels of the Triple Crown vindicated my judgment of Point Given, who went on to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

As a betting proposition in the Derby, however, the 10-1 Monarchos would have been the smart play, if I’d paid attention to my verdict on the Wood.