This Wood Memorial is not as deep as the wide-open Blue Grass, nor does it feature the star power of the Santa Anita Derby. However, it has attracted a handful of accomplished 3-year-olds, many of whom could find themselves in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May with solid performances at Aqueduct this weekend. Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus is likely to be the favorite, but he will have to fend off challenges from local stakes winners Tax and Haikal as well as improving runners like Final Jeopardy and Hoffa’s Union.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace given the presence of a few key front-runners. Hoffa’s Union (#3) is predicted to be on the lead following his gate-to-wire debut win at Laurel, but he is unlikely to get a free ride. Speedy rivals Overdeliver (#6) and Not That Brady (#7) should also be trying to clear off to the lead, while Outshine (#10) and Joevia (#11) are likely to show some initiative from their outside draws to mitigate potential ground loss. Tax (#1) could even be in a chasing position from his rail post position if he breaks well. An extremely fast pace would favor race favorites Tacitus (#2) and Haikal (#4).
Let’s go through the field:
#1, TAX (9-2): He feels like the forgotten horse in this Wood Memorial. Tax seemingly had solid Derby credentials earlier in the year after finishing third in a strong edition of the Remsen and grinding out a victory in the Withers. Yet the nine weeks since then could just as well have been an eternity. The landscape has changed so drastically as more 3-year-olds have entered the conversation that Tax is now considered a fringe player at best.
Yet there are some things to like about this gelding. Maximus Mischief and Network Effect have since been relegated to the sidelines, but Remsen fourth-place finisher Bourbon War did return to validate the form of that race. Tax finished more than lengths ahead of that rival despite racing wide around both turns. There has been much debate about the speed figures assigned to the Withers, especially after Not That Brady and Our Braintrust returned to run so poorly in their subsequent preps. A couple of runners who finished farther back in the pack did return to repeat their speed figures, so the race remains an enigma. I’m willing to give Tax the benefit of the doubt and will take his 117 TimeformUS Speed Figure at face value. He did work out a perfect trip from the rail in the Withers, saving ground every step of the way under a crafty ride from Junior Alvarado. My first instinct would be to bet against a horse coming off such a favorable setup, but it’s highly likely that he will work out a similar trip in this Wood Memorial. He has drawn the rail once again and possesses a versatile running style that should allow Alvarado to place him in the right spot. I’m a big fan of Danny Gargan as a trainer, and I expect that he will have this horse primed for a top effort. A major threat.
#2, TACITUS (5-2): I get the sense that this regally bred son of champion mare Close Hatches is just beginning to figure out how to be a top racehorse. He hinted at great potential when he made his career debut in a salty maiden race in October at Belmont, performing quite admirably to be fourth after pressing the pace. I was underwhelmed by his subsequent effort at Aqueduct despite the fact that he earned his first victory. He was defeating a weaker field and had to be hard ridden to forge past the mediocre Erlich in the late stages. I was somewhat skeptical that he could handle the step up in class in the Tampa Bay Derby off such a performance, but he proved that my skepticism was unfounded.
Many things did break in Tacitus’s favor when he won that Grade 2 race last time out, but the horse still deserves credit for rising to the challenge. Jose Ortiz took him much farther off the pace than he had been in his prior starts, and he relaxed beautifully behind the fast early pace. Ortiz wisely saved as much ground as possible around the far turn, and Tacitus willingly ran through traffic inside of horses in the stretch. His late move was a bit of an optical illusion given that so many horses ahead of him were tiring at the end of the Tampa Bay Derby, but his overall TimeformUS Speed Figure of 114 is nevertheless respectable. He is supposed to have no trouble handling an extra sixteenth of a mile in this race, and he has a right to improve in his second start off the layoff. The only downside is that he is likely to be a short price in a tough race. I don’t want to pick him as the favorite, but I have plenty of respect for this colt. The horse to beat.
#3, HOFFA’S UNION (6-1): This gelding is the Hidden Scroll of the Mid-Atlantic. The 118 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned for that effort is tied for the highest number in the field, and that figure makes sense based on the prior form of those who finished behind him. I have little doubt that Hoffa’s Union possesses extraordinary ability, but I’m somewhat skeptical that he can repeat that effort as he steps up in class. While the pace of that Laurel race was not exactly slow, Hoffa’s Union was allowed to get away with pretty moderate early fractions. That 114 pace figure for his half-mile fraction is four points lower than his final-time figure, indicating that he was really allowed to back down the pace through the middle portion of that event. He will not be afforded that same luxury this time with the likes of Not That Brady and Overdeliver chasing him. Perhaps new trainer Mark Casse and rider Dylan Davis will elect to rate Hoffa’s Union if either of those two rivals is intent on making the lead, but that generates even more questions for this lightly raced gelding to answer. I’m not going to be surprised if he runs well, but as fellow debut winner Hidden Scroll demonstrated last weekend, wading immediately into the deep end of the pool can be treacherous. Much to overcome.
#4, HAIKAL (7-2): Few horses on this Derby trail have been as fortunate as Haikal. He got an honest pace to close into when he won his maiden. He rode an extremely strong rail bias in his Jimmy Winkfield score. And last time, he benefited from one of the fastest paces we’ve seen this winter and spring in taking the Gotham. It’s possible that he will receive another favorable setup here with so much speed signed on, but I don’t think such a scenario automatically puts him in the winner’s circle. The stretch-out to two turns is a significant hurdle for closing sprinters like Haikal because it dilutes the potency of their late runs. Haikal won the Gotham because the victory fell into his lap, rather than due to his exceptional finishing power. That is illustrated by his mediocre 91 Late Pace Rating, which is not even the highest in this field – that belongs to Tacitus. Furthermore, Haikal’s pedigree does not inspire confidence that the added ground will be to his advantage. He is a half-brother to Grade 1 sprinter Takaful, and there is sprint pedigree throughout his female family going back generations. He’s the one logical contender whom I want to bet against. Offers no value as the second choice.
#5, FINAL JEOPARDY (8-1): Jason Servis proved that he could train a horse to victory in a major Derby prep last weekend when he sent out Maximum Security to upset the Florida Derby. This colt is also owned by Gary and Mary West, but he has a different sort of profile. Whereas Maximum Security is a homebred who started out in cheap races, Servis and the Wests have always had high hopes for Final Jeopardy, who was purchased as a weanling. Despite a pedigree that suggests route distances would be to his liking, Servis began his career in sprint races. His debut in December was not a particularly fast race, but his performance was quite encouraging. After getting outrun through the opening furlongs, he unleashed a furious stretch rally to fly past the leaders in the final eighth of a mile. The split for his final two furlongs was nearly two seconds faster than any other horse in that field. This horse clearly wanted to stretch out, but Servis kept him at six furlongs for his second start in the Limehouse. Predictably, he was unable to keep up in the early stages and could only rally for third.
He finally got the opportunity to cover more ground in his most recent start on March 3, and I loved what I saw. He broke much more sharply than in his first pair of races and willingly placed himself in a stalking position on the backstretch through solid opening fractions. Most horses who stretch out are unable to deliver the same turn of foot over a longer distance, but Final Jeopardy had no problems producing his powerful stretch run in that one-mile test. His 106 TimeformUS Speed Figure from that performance is a cut below the numbers of the top contenders, but I get the sense that this horse can continue improving with added ground. He’s built like a colt who wants to run all day, and he hails from the female family of Midshipman and Frosted. Servis and the Wests may have one of the Derby favorites with Maximum Security, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this colt proves to be their best chance when all is said and done. The selection.
#6, OVERDELIVER (20-1): The speed figures for that Pasco Stakes won by Win Win Win seem a bit too high in retrospect, as a few horses have returned out of that race to disappoint. Overdeliver is bred to handle the stretch-out, but it’s hard to envision him surviving an early duel with the likes of Hoffa’s Union and Not That Brady. Pass.
#7, NOT THAT BRADY (20-1): I’m surprised to see him running back in the Wood after his meltdown in the Gotham – both before and during the race. I think we learned that he needs the lead to be successful, but it will be difficult for him to secure that position with serious speed rivals to his inside. It’s hard to envision a successful outcome for this likeable New York-bred. Pass.
#8, GRUMPS LITTLE TOTS (30-1): Final Jeopardy’s stablemate may be biting off more than he can chew as he steps up in class following his maiden win. That Feb. 18 field was relatively weak for the level, and Grumps Little Tots has yet to record a triple-digit TimeformUS Speed Figure. Pass.
#9, MATH WIZARD (30-1): It would be a major story if two horses out of that Jan. 6 maiden-claiming race won by Maximum Security made it to the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that scenario is quite remote given this colt’s mediocre recent form. Pass.
#10, OUTSHINE (6-1): I would not argue with anyone who asserted that he ran a stronger race than Tacitus in the Tampa Bay Derby. The early pace was fast – as indicated by red color-coded TimeformUS Pace Figures – and Outshine was in close attendance while racing by himself in third down the backstretch. He made the first move to challenge the leaders and briefly looked like a winner at the eighth pole before getting cut down late. While I appreciate the strength of that performance, I still prefer Tacitus given the circumstances of this Wood Memorial. Bill Mott’s runner strikes me as one with greater upside than this Todd Pletcher colt, especially as they stretch out to 1 1/8 miles. Stamina has to be a concern for Outshine’s supporters given his ambiguous pedigree. One would expect a horse by Malibu Moon out of an Unbridled’s Song mare to have no trouble handling nine furlongs, but Outshine’s female family is decidedly sprint-oriented. His dam was best going sprint distances on turf, and his full sister Bowie also excelled in turf sprints. Furthermore, John Velazquez is going to have to use this colt immediately after the start to attain a forward position from this outside draw. I won’t be surprised if he runs well here off that encouraging performance at Tampa, but I prefer others. Using underneath.
#11, JOEVIA (30-1): He took advantage of a strong rail bias when second to Haikal in the Jimmy Winkfield and was never a serious factor behind Alwaysmining in his first attempt around two turns. He may be a pace factor from this wide slot, but he’s unlikely to be around at the finish. Pass.
The three most likely winners are Tax (#1), Tacitus (#2), and Final Jeopardy (#5). Tacitus does not entice me at a very short price, so I will key on the other two options. Tax is a horse I would use prominently in all slots and may even press to win, depending on his price. Final Jeopardy would be the best win bet if he’s anything close to his 8-1 morning line, and he is my top selection.
Exacta Box: 1,2,5
Exacta Key Box: 5 with 3,4,10
Trifecta: 1,5 with 1,5 with 2,3,4,10
Trifecta: 1,5 with 2,10 with 1,5
Trifecta: 5 with 2 with 3,4,10