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Waiting for a Derby hero

Over the last 10 years, not a single horse coming out of the Wood Memorial has finished among the top three in the Kentucky Derby. As for the Wood winner during this period, he typically finished 11th in the Derby, if he ran at all.

Also over the last 10 years, two horses (Giacomo and I'll Have Another) out of the Santa Anita Derby have won the most famous of races and two more (Imperialism and Pioneerof The Nile) distinguished themselves by finishing in its top trio. And so which of this weekend's stops on the road to Kentucky figures to be more meaningful, which is more likely to produce a genuine contender at Churchill Downs and which just might be a preamble to a Derby victory? It isn't a trick question.

Which of this weekend's stops on the road to Kentucky figures to be more meaningful, which is more likely to produce a genuine contender at Churchill Downs and which just might be a preamble to a Derby victory?


Based on recent history, which suggests the Wood Memorial has about as much impact on the first of the Triple Crown's jewels as the Palio di Siena, and, even more, based on Saturday's entries, the Santa Anita Derby will be the most significant prelim run this year, either for what it validates or for what it refutes. So far, as a group the California 3-year-olds have looked stronger than those that will be converging on Kentucky from Florida, New York, Arkansas and Louisiana. And the Kentucky Derby favorite will probably be standing in the Santa Anita winner's circle sometime Saturday afternoon.

Recent results argue that Oaklawn Park is the best place to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. A horse having just raced at Oaklawn has finished in the Derby trifecta eight of the last 10 years, with, of course, two from Arkansas (Super Saver and Smarty Jones) winning. Horses going to Kentucky directly from the Florida Derby have done well, too, along with the Santa Anita contingent. But a chorus line of New York horses has flopped in Kentucky: Verrazano, for example, finished 14th last year, Gemologist 16th in 2012 and Bob And John 17th in 2006.

"I think a lot of that just depends on where the good horses happen to be in a particular year," said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, dismissing the theory that one road to Kentucky might be inherently better than another. "You have to have a good horse, and then it's all about who gets really good at the right time."

From 1930 to 2003, or from Gallant Fox to Funny Cide, the Wood Memorial produced 20 winners of the Kentucky Derby. So what's happened since then that has made the Wood inconsequential?

When Funny Cide and Empire Maker flipped their New York exacta in Kentucky, the Wood was run three weeks prior to the Derby. Saturday's Wood, of course, will be run four weeks out. Also, not too long ago, the Florida Derby occupied a much earlier place on the calendar. And so it wasn't uncommon for a horse to race in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park (or in the Flamingo at Hialeah in the days of Foolish Pleasure and Seattle Slew) and then travel to New York for his final preparation, as Monarchos did in 2001 and Go For Gin in 1994. With the Florida Derby and Wood now run a week apart, that once-successful scenario has been consigned to history.

But Social Inclusion is traveling a parallel variation of that old path. The 2-1 favorite for Saturday's Wood at Aqueduct, Social Inclusion romped in an allowance race last month at Gulfstream, beating highly regarded Honor Code by 10 lengths. Is he good enough to win the Wood in only his third career outing?

Perhaps, but he'll have to climb a steep hill to get to the Aqueduct winner's circle. At Gulfstream, on a notoriously speed-biased surface, Social Inclusion was able to control the pace in moderate fractions. For his stakes debut, he has drawn the extreme outside position, No. 11, and he'll have to deal with plenty of contentious speed -- specifically Uncle Sigh, Schivarelli and Noble Moon. And ultimately Social Inclusion will have to deal with Samraat, the unbeaten King of Queens, who has won three stakes at Aqueduct, including the Withers and Gotham.

You have to have a good horse, and then it's all about who gets really good at the right time.

-- HoF Trainer Bob Baffert


For the most part, not many good horses have come out of the Wood in recent years, and those that were good, or even exceptional, couldn't race in the Derby because of injury, horses such as Eskendereya and I Want Revenge. From this year's Wood perhaps one or two horses could emerge, irredentists, who might restore, if only for a while, the race's former significance and glory. The field seems deeply talented.

Still, the expectation here is that an hour or so after the Wood the Kentucky Derby favorite will be standing resplendent in a shower of praise at Santa Anita. If California Chrome can duplicate, or even approximate, his San Felipe performance Saturday, he'll go to Kentucky as the deserving Derby favorite.

A winner of three consecutive stakes by a total of 19 lengths, California Chrome was the individual betting favorite in Churchill's most recent Derby Future pool. And he's the 6-5 favorite in the morning line at Santa Anita, followed by Candy Boy, the Robert Lewis Stakes winner, at 9-5 and Hoppertunity, the Rebel Stakes winner, at 3-1.

Having already traveled back and forth to New Orleans and then to Arkansas, Hoppertunity has lost a little weight, Baffert said, explaining why he decided on running the colt here rather than shipping again to Oaklawn Park for next week's Arkansas Derby. And with a recent workout, Hoppertunity convinced his trainer of his readiness to fire another good shot. Candy Boy needs to earn qualifying points if he's going to Kentucky, and he has strung together some impressive early-morning moves to prepare for what's essential, a big effort Saturday. But they'll have to catch California Chrome.

In the San Felipe, after running the opening half-mile in 45.55 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.45, the handsome chestnut drew off to win by more than seven lengths, completing the 1 1/16 miles in 1:40.59. It was the best performance by a 3-year-old this year, just the sort of effort a Derby favorite might give on his way to Kentucky.