The Wood Memorial used to be one of the great races in the country. Four Triple Crown winners won this race en route to the Kentucky Derby -- Gallant Fox, Count Fleet, Assault, and Seattle Slew. Almost countless other Triple Crown race winners and horses that went on to be legendary sires have won it as well. In recent years, though, the race just hasn't been the same.
Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 was the last horse to win this race and the Kentucky Derby and the only one since 1981. Empire Maker, who ended Funny Cide's Triple Crown dreams in the 2003 Belmont, is the last Wood winner to win a Triple Crown race. There was bad luck in 2009 and 2010 as both I Want Revenge and Eskendereya would have been likely Derby favorites after winning the Wood, but both were injured leading up to the big race. It has been a very long time, though, since this race has produced a true star. In some ways it's not even a major prep anymore, though it has the time and the qualification points of the big ones. It desperately needs a star to reverse its fortunes. So, is this the year?
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There are eight horses entered in the race this year, but from a practical standpoint it's really a showdown between four. All four have huge talent, but each has a reason or three for us to be concerned as well. Here's how it shapes up:
Battalion Runner, John Velazquez, 2/1: To start off, this horse has an interesting pedigree distinction. Sire Unbridled's Song won this race in 1996, and damsire Tapit won it in 2004. We can be confident that he can handle this spot, then. What we have less of a sense of, though, is if he is really any good. He has run only three times and is making his stakes debut. He tried to break his maiden way back in June at Belmont but finished second. He wasn't seen again until he broke his maiden on New Year 's Eve at Gulfstream. Then he showed up in an allowance race in early February and won that, too. So, he hasn't run in two months and is making his stakes debut. But he has strong breeding, obvious talent, and has looked fine in training. Trainer Todd Pletcher has won this race four times in the last seven years and has been red hot on the Derby trail this year -- often with under-raced but promising colts like this one. I get why people like the horse, but I'm going to look elsewhere for a winner given the likely price.
Cloud Computing, Irad Ortiz, 5/2: Battalion Runner is a grizzled veteran next to this guy. He made his debut on Feb. 11 and is making just his third career start. Historically, both of those factors all but eliminate him from serious Derby contention, so there is a lot working against him from the outset. He won that maiden solidly and then came back to finish a decent second in the Gotham behind J Boys Echo, who will be in the Blue Grass Stakes this weekend. It was a strong showing, and both races were at this same Aqueduct track so he obviously likes the surface. However, I can't help but be skeptical given the lack of experience. The breeding is decent, which helps his cause a little bit. He gets plenty of stamina from damsire A.P. Indy. And while sire Maclean's Music ran only once himself, he's a son of Distorted Humor, who sired Funny Cide and is the grandsire of I'll Have Another. There is definitely Derby blood in these veins. It's not enough, though. If a really raw horse wins this race then I'll be beaten.
Irish War Cry, Rajiv Maragh, 7/2: This is where my money is going to be, and that shows that I have a strong spirit of forgiveness. His last outing in the Fountain of Youth was just horrible in every way, but I am willing to overlook that because of what else he has to offer. First, he's a son of Curlin, and I'm a big believer in that bloodline in tests like this. Heading into that last race he had been very impressive, too. He broke his maiden in the first try in November then won a minor stakes at Laurel Park. Then he headed to Gulfstream for the Holy Bull, which he won very impressively against a strong field. He showed little in the Fountain of Youth, but for now I'm willing to work with the theory that he bounced off his strong Holy Bull performance. That would mean he would be better here. Graham Motion has won this race before, and I like his chances of winning it again. He is the choice.
Mo Town, Javier Castellano, 6/1: He's a son of Uncle Mo, who sired Derby winner Nyquist last year in his first crop, so this colt deserves some attention for that alone. And his damsire is great runner and sire Bernardini, so there is a lot to like about the breeding. He also won the Remsen here at Aqueduct in November, so we know he can win big races on this track. And his jockey is outstanding. So there are a lot of positives. Unfortunately, those are outweighed in my mind by everything that has happened since the Remsen. He has run only once since, and it was an ugly performance in the Risen Star. He just showed nothing that day, and I can't forgive that as easily as I can for the last horse discussed because he hasn't done anything in the last four months to make me think it was a fluke. I'm not crazy about his recent workouts, and I just don't believe.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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