Let’s dispense with the Wood Memorial history out of the gate. There are 13 Triple Crown winners, and this Grade 2 Kentucky Derby prep claims four of them: Gallant Fox, Count Fleet, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat.

Weyburn-Wood Memorial
Weyburn (inside) held off a surging Crowded Trade to win the Grade 3 Gotham in February. The two tangle again Saturday at Aqueduct in a talented Wood Memorial field. (Image: Sarah Andrew)

Eleven horses pulled off the Wood Memorial/Kentucky Derby double. You’ve probably heard of a few, including the aforementioned Gallant Fox, Count Fleet and Seattle Slew, along with Hoop Jr., Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes, Pleasant Colony, and Fusaichi Pegasus. You’ll also note Secretariat was left off that list. He finished third in the 1973 Wood Memorial.

We’ll get back to Fusaichi Pegasus and the history books in a moment.

The 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial, which headlines Aqueduct’s Saturday card that also features the Grade 1 Carter Handicap, is one of three major Derby prep races on Saturday. Along with the Santa Anita Derby and Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, it offers 100-40-20-10 Derby qualifying points to its top four finishers. That puts the winner, and probably the runner up, into the Churchill Downs starting gate May 1.

Wood Memorial hasn’t had a good century

Lately, that hasn’t put Derby bettors of Wood Memorial alums into ticket-cashing positions. The last Wood Memorial alum to win the Derby was Funny Cide in 2003. He finished second in that year’s Wood Memorial. The last to pull of the Wood/Derby double was the aforementioned Fusaichi Pegasus.

History may not be the Wood Memorial’s 21st century friend, but this year’s edition makes up for that with the most wide-open field of Saturday’s three Derby preps. Five of the nine colts in the field make legitimate cases for inclusion on – or exclusion from — your tickets.

We’ll start with 5/2 favorite Risk Taking. He opens his case with the fact he’s already run nine furlongs. He bolsters it with the fact he already won a Derby prep – the Grade 3 Withers – on this same track in February. Furthering his case are Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons and the blinkers trainer Chad Brown added. The Medaglia d’Oro colt is 2-for-2 with the new gear.

Bet on Brown’s horses outside of New York

Those are the pluses. Now, the minuses. The first is speed. Risk Taking hasn’t cracked a 90 Beyer Speed Figure yet. The second is the Chad Brown Factor. Like Bob Baffert in Southern California, the New York-based Brown’s horses get pounded odds-wise at the New York Racing Association tracks. As a result, Risk Taking’s value will likely be negligible when the gate opens.

That brings us to the designated “buzz” horse, Prevalence (3/1). The Brendan Walsh-trained, Goldolphin-owned colt is an impressive-on-the-surface 2-for-2. His first victory was an 8 ½-length dismantling of a seven-furlong, maiden special weight field on the Pegasus World Cup undercard at Gulfstream. His second was a yawn-inducing, three-length breeze in a one-mile, first-level allowance.

Now, we get to see how this translates to running two turns in a graded stakes race for the first time. We get to see if Prevalence can rack up a 90-plus Beyer. He hasn’t yet. And we get to see how Prevalence does it outside of Gulfstream Park. Prevalence must win or finish second to make the Derby.

Prevalence’s connections went for winning experience

“I think that’s one of the blessings we had out of going back in an allowance race, where he got good experiences in both races and learned something in both races,” Jimmy Bell, the president of Godolphin’s US Operations, said on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association call this week. “And that’s what gives us a little more confidence about stepping into deeper water and greater stakes, and stepping up an added distance. But to have those two races under his belt, I think both were learning experiences and both were progressive steps.”

Progressive steps make Crowded Trade (4/1) a sleeper pick here. The “other Brown” in the field, Crowded Trade chalked up a career-best 105 Equibase en route to his runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Gotham on March 6. That’s the fastest mark in the Wood Memorial field, and his 95 Beyer for that race shares top honors with Weyburn.

That Crowded Trade racked up those numbers in his second career start, while stretching from six furlongs to a mile, bodes well in this field. So does his stalking style, which – while failing to hold off Weyburn in the Gotham stretch – was more a product of Weyburn’s grit than Crowded Trade’s race.

Weyburn owns biggest Derby trail shocker

Speaking of Weyburn (9/2), he may present the value Risk Taking and Prevalence lack. He pulled off the biggest upset on the Derby trail to date, winning the Gotham in a photo at 46/1. That came with a 105 Equibase and 95 Beyer – both co-tops in this field. A tenacious runner similar to Baffert’s Medina Spirit, Weyburn brings speed and guts with his pacesetting style.

Weyburn’s question is whether – with 50 Derby points safely banked — this is a glorified workout. Will trainer Jimmy Jerkens crank him up here, knowing the Derby is a month out?

No such question exists with Brooklyn Strong (6/1). His trainer, Danny Velazquez, pretty much called his shot this week on the NTRA call.

A confident trainer, this Danny Velazquez

“My level of confidence going into the Wood is almost too high. People are telling me to knock it down a notch, but I got to keep it real,” he said. “I feel very confident in my horse and my horse’s ability to prevail as the winner of the Wood.”

Brooklyn Strong stated his case back in December, winning the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes by a neck in his first two-turn race. One of his victims was Known Agenda, who won last week’s Florida Derby after finishing third in the Remsen.

Grade 2 Wood Memorial/Aqueduct

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Brooklyn Strong, 6/1 (Manny Franco/Daniel Velazquez)
  2. Crowded Trade, 4/1 (Eric Cancel/Chad Brown)
  3. Bourbonic, 30/1 (Kendrick Carmouche/Todd Pletcher)
  4. Risk Taking, 5/2 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Chad Brown)
  5. Dynamic One, 12/1 (Jose Ortiz/Todd Pletcher)
  6. Prevalence, 3/1 (Tyler Gaffalione/Brendan Walsh)
  7. Candy Man Rocket, 12/1 (Junior Alvarado/Bill Mott)
  8. Weyburn, 9/2 (Trevor McCarthy/Jimmy Jerkens)
  9. Market Maven, 30/1 (Dexter Haddock/Penny Pearce)

That was Brooklyn Strong’s third victory in four races. It was also the last time Brooklyn Strong ran. He came down with an unspecified illness that put him on the shelf until Feb. 26. His question centers around whether he can pick up where he left off and go 1 1/8 miles off a five-month racing layoff.

The pick: Crowded Trade. Basically, this comes down to the colt with the most speed and the fewest minuses. None of these five finding the winner’s circle would surprise anyone. But when you unpack everything, Crowded Trade makes the best case with his speed, connections and running style.

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