Plugged Nickle won the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct today and cemented his status as the probable favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But he hardly enhanced his reputation.
The colt had to work harder than expected to score a 1 1/2-length victory over his stablemate, Colonel Moran. And his time of 1:50 4/5 for 1 1/8 miles was dismal, one of the slowest in the history of the race.
Before the Wood, which served as a prep for three of the last five Kentucky Derby winners, Plugged Nickle's credentials were impeccable. He had just won the Florida Derby by seven lengths, and now he was training splendidly. His major problem in the Wood appeared to be the disadvantageous No. 10 post position.
Plugged Nickle and jockey Buck Thornburg overcame that problem in a hurry. Trainer Tom Kelly had told the rider not to rush the colt, but when Plugged Nickle broke alertly, Thronburg said, "I decided to go on with him. I wanted to get on the rail where the best going was."
Thronburg steered his horse to the rail and took the lead away from the speedy Colonel Moran, who had broken from the No. 1 post. Under ordinary circumstances, Colonel Moran's rider, Jorge Velasquez, would have made the favorite fight to get in front of him. But since the horses were stablemates, Velasquez was going to be a good team player.
With nobody else to challenge him, Plugged Nickle breezed down the backstretch, a length ahead of Colonel Moran, with Genuine Risk stalking them in third place. No other serious competition was in sight.
As they reached the turn, Plugged Nickle's two challengers moved outside him. Thronburg now asked the son of Key To The Mint for a response. This was the moment for him to repel the challenges, draw away by six lengths and make himself a 6-to-5 shot at Churchill Downs.
He didn't do it.
Even with Thronburg cracking him six or seven times, Plugged Nickle couldn't shake loose from Colonel Moran, who had collapsed the only other time he had run 1 1/8. And as Genuine Risk movedup on the outside, Thronburg conceded, "It was a little scary."
Plugged Nickle covered the last eighth of a mile in a dawdling 13 4-5 seconds. Moreover, he was drifting out from the rail, usually a sign that a horse is tired or that something is hurting him. He crossed into the path of Genuine risk, triggering a foul claim that was disallowed.
Plugged Nickle paid $3, $2.60 and $2.40. Colonel Moran returned $3.80 and $3.40 and Genuine Risk paid $3 to show.
Even though Plugged Nickle was not exactly awesome, Kelly was delighted. He has spent months preparing Plugged Nickle for his major objective, and the colt has done everything asked of him. Kelly will probably give Plugged Nickle one or two major workouts before saddling him at Churchill Downs on May 3.
Kelly said he wasn't certain whether he wold also go to Kentucky with Colonel Moran, who had suffered a slight foot injury before the Wood. "It's a little early to decide," the trainer said. "We'll determine what to do depending how he comes out of the race. We went out on a limb running him today."
Trainer Leroy Jolley said Genuine Risk would not run in the Derby. The filly, who suffered the first loss of her seven-race career today, will return to competition with members of her own sex.
But she is one of the few Derby candidates who will have defected because of today's results. If Plugged Nickle had won big, the field at Churchill Downs would probably have been one of reasonable size. Now all the owners with ambulatory 3-year-old colts are going to think they have a shot to win America's most famous race. And they may be right.