OZONE PARK, N.Y. -- Todd Pletcher had suffered two tough beats in Grade 1 races at Keeneland Saturday and was hoping that bad things don't, in fact, happen in sets of three.
Standing in a crowded little office in the paddock at Aqueduct, he watched on the tiniest of television sets as Outwork struck the front in mid-stretch of the 92nd Wood Memorial. The still-developing colt, making just his fourth career start was bracing for the oncoming challenge of Trojan Nation, a maiden who at 81-1 was the longest shot in the Wood field.
"Stay focused, stay focused," shouted Pletcher, who earlier in the day suffered narro
w losses with Rachel's Valentina in the Ashland, and Sheer Drama in the Madison.
Outwork may have been losing focus, but he didn't lose the race, edging T
rojan Nation by a head to win the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial at soggy Aqueduct.
The win not only earned Outwork a spot in the starting gate for the May 7 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, it helped avenge a loss by his sire. Five years ago, Uncle Mo finished third as the 1-9 favorite.
"Forget the Derby, forget everything other than the fact it was a huge win for him in his only his fourth lifetime start to win a Grade 1," said Pletcher. "It was extra gratifying for our team because five years ago Uncle Mo didn't win the Wood Memorial. It's sort of vindication in some ways for him."
Mike Repole owned Uncle Mo and he owns and is the breeder of Outwork. He said the 2011 Wood was "probably one of my toughest racing days and today is probably one of my best racing days."
Outwork was game -- if not fast - in victory. Over a sealed, muddy track, Outwork, under John Velazquez, dueled outside of Matt King Coal, under Jose Ortiz, through a half-mile in 45.06 seconds and six furlongs in 1:12.31. The two came into the stretch side-by-side, and it wasn't until just outside the eighth pole that Outwork put away Matt King Coal.
At that time, Trojan Nation, a maiden who lost all five of his starts, was charging up the rail rallying from last under Aaron Gryder. The two persevered through a final eighth in 14.02 seconds with Outwork prevailing.
The final time of 1:52.92 was the slowest time for a Wood Memorial. The previous slowest was 1:52.53 by Tale of Ekati, who finished fourth in the 2008 Kentucky Derby.
"I think he lost focus a little bit when he made the lead," said Pletcher won his fourth Wood Memorial.
"Johnny said he kind of idled on him a bit, plus I think he was getting a little tired. They ran along the first part pretty well. I was hoping that didn't catch up with him late."
Velazquez said he tried to keep Outwork away from Matt King Coal down the backside.
"At the quarter pole, he put his ears up, idled a lot," Velazquez said. "He is still a young horse who is still learning."
While Outwork earned 100 qualifying points to earn his way into the Derby, Trojan Nation collected 40 points and could run in the Derby as a maiden should his connections go that way.
"We've always liked the horse," said trainer Paddy Gallagher from Southern California, where he watched the race. "As long as he's happy and healthy why not at least take a look at it for sure."
Adventist closed down the center of the track to get third by a neck over Matt King Coal. That was Adventist's third straight third-place finish in a graded stakes here and he now has 32 points, which could be enough to go to Churchill.
Matt King Coal was making his stakes debut. He earned 10 points which will likely not be enough to get him in.
Jockey Jose Ortiz said by the three-eighths pole Matt King Coal started bearing out, "which cost me third."
The disappointment of the race was Shagaf, who finished fifth, beaten four lengths. He got stopped a little bit behind horses around the turn, and then came wide in the stretch and flattened out. By virtue of his Gotham Stakes win last month, he could go on to the Derby.
"He elected to go inside and made a sharp middle move there and just had enough of the mud," said trainer Chad Brown. "We'll just see how the horse comes out of the race and go from there. If the horse is healthy I'm inclined to hope for a dry track at Churchill and a better trip. I m confident the horse can get a mile and a quarter."
Tale of S'avall, Flexibility, and Dalmore completed the order of finish in the Wood.