There are many roads that lead to Louisville and the Kentucky Derby.
The Wood Memorial route has been well travelled. Eleven Wood winners have prevailed in the “Run for the Roses.”
The Wood had its beginnings at Jamaica Racetrack, one of New York’s premier racing venues of the early twentieth century. It was named for the original owner of the track, Eugene Wood. Inaugurated in 1925, the Wood was originally run at the distance of a mile and one sixteenth.
In 1951 the race was lengthened to nine furlongs. That distance is the standard for all the final preps for the Kentucky Derby throughout the country. When Jamaica closed its doors in 1959 the race was moved to its present location at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The Wood is steeped in horse racing history. Five Triple Crown winners have come out of the event. Belair Stable’s Gallant Fox was the first to take the Wood on his way to horse racing’s Valhalla. He strutted his stuff in the 1930 version. Gallant Fox became only the second winner of the Crown that year. Next up came the 1943 champion Count Fleet. He took the race easily on his way to powerful performances in all three of the races that make up the Crown. King Ranch got its TC trophy three years later when Assault conquered the Wood. He flashed his brilliance with a decisive three length victory. It was a harbinger of things to come. He would go on to become America‘s seventh Triple Crown winner.
In 1973 Penny Tweedy, Lucien Laurin, Ron Turcotte, and a chestnut colt with the name Secretariat came to the Wood for his final Derby prep.
The racing world was in a state of shock when he finished third in the race won by his stable mate Angle Light. It didn’t take the big guy long to prove that the Wood was a onetime fluke. He easily took the Kentucky Derby two weeks later. Next up he added the Preakness. Then in one of the greatest performances ever witnessed on the American turf, Secretariat destroyed his competition with an incredible thirty-one length victory in the mile and a half Belmont Stakes. He had his Crown, and along with that the right to be mentioned in the same breath with Man O’ War as the greatest American racehorse that ever lived.
The Wood Memorial had one more Triple Crown champion on it’s list of winners. In 1977 a dark bay colt named Seattle Slew came to Aqueduct unbeaten in five races. He would remain that way as he easily took the Wood. He breezed through the Triple Crown events, becoming the first unbeaten racehorse to ever take the Crown.
There are six others who took the Derby after winning the Wood Memorial. They include well-known names like Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes, and Pleasant Colony.
Let’s look at the Wood winners that somehow lost the Derby yet became the Crème de la Crème of the sport.
Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s Native Dancer needs no introduction here. The “Gray Ghost” got a trip rivaling that of the Titanic on Derby day. It was the only race he would ever lose. He remains one of the most brilliant thoroughbreds to ever set foot on an American racetrack.
Two years later it was Nashua’s turn. He was the last in a line of champions to carry the famed white with red polka dot silks of William Woodward and his Belair Stable. Nashua took the Wood, only to lose to “The California Comet” Swaps on Derby Day. He went on to take the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He wasn’t finished. Racing fans clamored for a match race between Nashua and Swaps to decide Horse of the Year honors. They met at Chicago’s long-gone Washington Park in late August of 1955. Nashua was never headed as he took the race easily over his West Coast rival. America’s premier race rider Eddie Arcaro had this to say about him. “Nashua had as much talent as any racehorse that ever lived.”
Then there was Edith Bancroft’s Damascus. He took the Wood and looked like a lead pipe cinch to drape the roses. Unfortunately, he was spooked by the huge crowd at Churchill Downs. He finished a lackluster third. Damascus went on to become a shining star. His ten length victory over two legends, Buckpasser and Dr Fager in the Woodward Stakes, rates high on the list of noteworthy performances in the annals of the sport.
Bold Ruler is another Wood Memorial winner that demands a look. The year was 1957. In one of the greatest renditions of the race, Bold Ruler met Gallant Man for the first time. The two ran head to head for the entire race. At the finish it was Bold Ruler by a nose. The pair would have an appointment at Churchill Downs two weeks later. In a shocker, Bill Shoemaker aboard Gallant Man stood up just before the finish line. Bill Hartack aboard the lightly regarded Iron Liege took advantage of Shoemaker’s mistake. He was up by a nose at the wire. Bold Ruler went on to win the Preakness. Gallant Man easily took the Belmont and Travers Stakes. They met for Horse of the Year Honors that fall at Garden State Park. Bold Ruler clinched the title with a two-length victory over his historic foe.
It’s been two decades since a Wood Memorial winner has gone on to take the Derby. Fusaichi Pegasus was the last to pull it off in the millennium year of 2000. Three years later a Saratoga favorite Funny Cide ran a close second to Empire Maker in the Wood.
The two went on to Louisville. This time Funny Cide turned the tables. Jack Knowlton and his partners at Sackatoga Stable took “The Run for The Roses” and a legend was born.
Due to the continuing nationwide effects of the Corona virus, New York Racing has been halted. Hopefully it will be of a short duration. As for the Wood Memorial, the race has been put on hold, to be raced later. With the Kentucky Derby postponed until September, the Wood will not have its usual place on the calendar as a major prep for America’s greatest horse race.
Whatever happens this year, one thing is for sure. The Wood will be back soon, in its rightful place on the road to Louisville.