OZONE PARK, N.Y. -- Trainer Graham Motion was convinced Irish War Cry was a horse that could relax in the afternoon. He wanted to convince his new rider, Rajiv Maragh, of the same thing.
So for three mornings -- including race day -- Motion had Maragh gallop the horse in the morning to drive the point home.
"I've never had a jockey get on a horse in the morning to gallop before," said Motion, who added that he and assistant trainer Adrian Rolls "thought it was a real good idea for him to get on him to see how sensible he is."
The lessons learned in the morning paid off handsomely in the afternoon as Irish War Cry, settling just off the pace of front-running Battalion Runner, overtook that horse inside the eighth pole and drew off to a convincing 3 1/2-length victory in the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Battalion Runner held second by 3 1/2 lengths over Cloud Computing, who was 3 1/2 lengths clear of True Timber.
Bonus Points finished fifth, followed by Glennrichment, Mo Town, and Stretch's Stone.
The victory enabled Irish War Cry to rebound from a seventh-place finish in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and secure his spot in next month's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. In his stakes debut, Battalion Runner likely earned enough points to qualify for the Derby, but his owner, Vinnie Viola, seemed to be leaning against running him. Cloud Computing may also have enough points to go on to the Derby, but he has had three tough races in a short period of time.
The Wood Memorial has not produced a top-three finisher in the Derby since Funny Cide and Empire Maker ran 1-2 in 2003 after Empire Maker beat Funny Cide in the Wood.
Irish War Cry won the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 4 in front-running fashion. Motion wanted him to relax in the Fountain of Youth, but he chased a hot early pace and backed up.
In addition to getting the horse out of Florida, Motion equipped Irish War Cry with a figure-eight nose band for the Wood.
"A figure-eight gives you a little more control," said Motion, who watched the race from Keeneland. "He had the perfect trip. This is the kind of trip I hoped he had last time. I don't understand what happened last time. It's just a complete puzzle to me."
Breaking from the outside post in the eight-horse field, Irish War Cry was in third, three-wide entering the first turn as Battalion Runner, under John Velazquez, set the pace pressed by True Timber. The pair went a quarter in 23.50 seconds and a half-mile in 47.34.
At the five-eighths pole, Irish War Cry moved into second and at the half-mile pole he was within a half-length of Battalion Runner. At the three-eighths pole, the two were on even terms, and at the three-sixteenths pole it was clear Irish War Cry was going the better of the two.
Irish War Cry took over inside the eighth pole and leveled off nicely the last sixteenth of a mile as he drew away from the field.
Irish War Cry, a New Jersey-bred son of Curlin owned and bred by Isabelle de Tomaso, covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.91 and returned $9 as the third choice.
"He relaxed real easily, he did everything I wanted him to do without a lot of effort, he did it all in rhythm," Maragh said. "That's what we were hoping for; he wasn't rank at all, he settled beautifully. By getting on him in the morning I didn't think I'd have trouble getting him to settle. He goes so easy and comfortable in the morning."
Irish War Cry was to return to his base at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland and remain there until about a week before the Kentucky Derby.
Battalion Runner, making his first start in two months, held second but Velazquez felt the horse didn't put forth enough effort.
"I think he would have run better if he put out a little more effort," Velazquez said. "He run like a green horse today, like he's never been anywhere, he was lost."
Viola is part owner of Always Dreaming, the Florida Derby winner, who will definitely go on to the Kentucky Derby. As for Battalion Runner, Viola sounded as if he was leaning against, but would consult with trainer Todd Pletcher before making a final decision.
"Between Todd and the horse they'll tell us what we think," Viola said. "If I had to guess right now I'd say we probably would hold off from the Derby."