Kentucky Derby Preview Series – The Grade 2 Wood Memorial – by Eric DeCoster

On the final weekend of major Kentucky Derby preps, the Wood Memorial (G2) will take center stage with one of it’s most competitive fields in years. A race with plenty of history, the Wood Memorial has produced 20 Kentucky Derby winners over time, but none since 2003. In recent years, there have been plenty of talented winners like Tacitus, Vino Rosso, and Frosted, but none were able to put together winning efforts in Louisville. However, 2022 feels like a year that winless streak could end. With how wide-open this year’s Derby trail has been, and the presence of prep winners Mo Donegal, Early Voting, and Morello, it’s not outlandish to think the winner of this race could be a threat on the First Saturday in May.

Aqueduct Saturday 4/9/2022, Race 8: The Grade 2 Wood Memorial

170 Total Derby Points (100/40/20/10)

1 – Mo Donegal (5/2 morning line): Kicking off the field is the morning line co-second choice, Mo Donegal. A son of Uncle Mo, this graded stakes winning Todd Pletcher trainee has only made one start in 2022. That came a few months ago at Gulfstream Park, when he ran a strong race in the Holy Bull S. (G3) despite encountering trouble throughout. In that spot, he broke a touch slow and tried to close into a pace-less setup, in addition to a cutback in distance he clearly didn’t relish. The form that race was franked mightily last weekend when 1-2 finishers White Abarrio and Simplification ran first and third, respectively, in the Florida Derby (G1). Prior to that outing by Mo Donegal, he earned a hard fought victory over fellow Derby contender Zandon, in the Remsen S. (G2) over the same course and distance as the Wood Memorial. With his strong Aqueduct record, a return to a favorable distance, and the strongest back class in the field, Mo Donegal is certainly a player on Saturday.

2 – Golden Code (15/1): The second of three starters for the Pletcher barn, which with a win would tie “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons for the most wins in the Wood Memorial with 7 victories, Golden Code exits a very solid third in the Gotham S. (G3). After breaking his maiden in New York-bred company in start number two, he was thrown to the wolves in the Gotham where he went off at 27-1. He sat an excellent stalking trip under Kendrick Carmouche before being outrun by the top two, Morello and Dean’s List, down the stretch. Given his pedigree, there is good reason to believe he’ll improve stretching out to two turns and 9 furlongs for the first time, and he should get another beneficial trip just in behind the leaders. The question then becomes, “Is he good enough?”, which he likely isn’t, but there’s certainly positive angles surrounding this colt.

3 – Early Voting (5/2): The other co-second choice on the morning line, I have a good feeling either Early Voting or the previously mentioned Mo Donegal will go off favored when all is said and done. This colt is a polarizing one. Following a strong debut win last December at Aqueduct, Early Voting stretched all the way out to 9 furlongs and two turns for the Withers S. (G2), where he was able to take the field wire-to-wire and score by 4 1/2 lengths. Initially, most thought it was a weak field and he was just good enough to win, which was backed by a rather weak 78 Beyer Speed Figure. However, since that race, runner-up Un Ojo went on to pull a huge upset in the Rebel S. (G2), and fourth-place finisher Grantham was second in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) last month. That led to the Beyer of the Withers being bumped up 9 points to an 87, which for a February Derby prep certainly isn’t something to scoff at. The individual performance of Early Voting was good, but I still think it’s tough to figure out what he’s really done to this point in his career. Combine that with what could be a rather contentious pace, I struggle to figure out what kind of race he’ll run, but the talent is definitely there with this colt.

4 – Long Term (20/1): The last of the Pletcher’s and one of the longest prices on the morning-line, Long Term is still a maiden through four starts. He has been second in each run for what it’s worth, but the horses he’s lost to have all struggled against winners to this point. Each start has also been at Aqueduct across all possible distances, so it’s not like there’s an angle to find on that front. Long Term will be a major pace factor however, as he will likely be forwardly placed and challenging both Early Voting and Morello, which could throw a big wrench into the plans of those two favorites.

5 – Morello (9/5): The surprising (at least to me) morning-line favorite, Morello enters the Wood Memorial off a very impressive win in the Gotham S. (G3). Steve Asmussen has done an excellent job progressing this colt along and given him ample time to develop, ultimately building up for this race. It’s also been interesting to see Asmussen prep a colt for the Derby in New York, something he’s never done, but the ownership group is New York-based and it’s clearly paid off in this case. Prior to his open length score a month ago, Morello broke his maiden by just over four lengths last November and then took out the Jimmy Winkfield S. (L) at Aqueduct over 7 furlongs. He has excellent course experience and really has never turned a hair wrong, but he does have to still answer one question – distance. Although this is still Classic Empire’s first crop, his progeny to this point have suggested a preference for one turn races, and Morello‘s dam side doesn’t necessarily give me an indication he’ll get better the longer he goes. He also will have to deal with what I expect to be a pace on the quicker side, which is not always beneficial to a colt stretching out for the first time. Class might carry him through, but there are certainly factors playing heavily against him.

6 – Skippylongstocking (15/1): One of two runners for the in-form Saffie Joseph Jr., Skippylongstocking comes in off a visually impressive allowance score at Gulfstream. In that race, he was taken well off the pace for the first time in his career while the early speed went out and set very quick fractions. This allowed for him to take command and draw clear to an easy victory after the pace collapsed. I don’t think it was much more than that, however, and the form was not helped last weekend when Steal Sunshine and Swing Shift, who ran second and third in that allowance, ran well up the track in Derby preps. I have mentioned I think the pace in the Wood Memorial will be on the quicker side, but it will benefit a horse like Mo Donegal more so than this colt. A pass for me.

7 – A.P.’s Secret (20/1): The longer priced of the Saffie colts but the one I think has more talent, A.P.’s Secret is two-for-four lifetime and exits the Fountain of Youth S. (G2). In that race, he was running pretty evenly after sitting a stalking trip when he was jostled between In Due Time and High Oak in that debacle. One would’ve thought with that valid excuse he would’ve spit the bit entirely, but he actually ran pretty well down the lane without any prompting from Tyler Gaffalione. It’s not like he was ever going to win, but perhaps without the trouble he could’ve ran a few lengths better. He was very good in his three races before his stakes debut, including open length maiden and allowance scores. He’s probably just a cut below in the Wood, but it wouldn’t be the craziest thing if he stepped up and hit the board at a price.

8 – Barese (8/1): Another New York-bred and one with the potential to run a big race, Barese is undefeated in three career state-bred efforts. After breaking his maiden in a baby race last May at Belmont, he’s come back to take out two straight New York-bred stakes at Aqueduct going one turn. He has shown improvement from start to start visually and from a speed figures perspective, and his come-from-behind victory in the one mile Gander S. (R) was as good of a win as you’d see from a developing three-year old. On top of all of this, he is very eligible to improve stretching out to two turns for the first time. Most progeny of Laoban tend to love longer distances, and Barese‘s dam, Right Prevails, is a full sibling to Closing Argument, the 2005 Kentucky Derby runner-up. I think if this colt can keep showing the improvement he has in his first few races this year, there’s a potential for him to hit the board and maybe find himself in a Triple Crown race soon.

The Verdict: 1-8-3

In the Wood Memorial, I think Mo Donegal holds a tactical advantage over the other two favorites, which will ultimately see him win this race. As much as you have to love his surface experience, most of the other starters in here have quality Aqueduct runs themselves, so it’s not much of a separator. As I just mentioned, I think what does create the separation is his ability to rate off the pace, and compounded with the fact I think he’s the best 9 furlong horse in the race, and he has kept very strong company, makes it a logical top choice in my eyes.

Underneath, I believe Barese provides excellent value. He’s been nothing but professional and I’ve been waiting for him to get a chance going long for a while now. This seems like a great spot for him to get that first opportunity, and he’s another one who should be able to set up off the pace. I also think Early Voting will run credibly. There is no doubt he has talent, but how much is a question that still must be answered. My guess is he’ll be softened up just enough that he’ll get mowed down in the late stages by Mo Donegal and Barese, but still gut out an even third.

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