The winner of the Kentucky Derby, whoever it may be, probably is in the field of the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Saturday.
Although other major Derby prep races are being run today -- the $500,000 Arkansas Derby, the $300,000 Garden State Stakes and the $200,000 California Derby -- the Wood has drawn more top-class 3-year-olds than the others combined.
The meeting of Proud Truth, Rhoman Rule, Eternal Prince and Pancho Villa should reveal the leader of this equine generation and answer important questions about all of these good horses.
Possibly the most significant question is this: How good is Rhoman Rule? The colt started his season with a 10-length romp in an allowance sprint in Florida, then ran away with the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah by eight lengths. But that was the first stakes victory of Rhoman Rule's career, and it didn't really prove much.
Rhoman Rule was the only speed horse in the field and controlled the race by setting a slow pace. Any reasonably good horse should have won big under such circumstances. Saturday (WJLA-TV-7 at 4:30 p.m.) he will come off a five-week layoff and face competition far tougher than he ever has seen. If he wins it, he will be a standout favorite at Churchill Downs two weeks hence.
Rhoman Rule is expected to be a virtual co-favorite at Aqueduct with Proud Truth, who ran well in all the major Florida stakes this winter. Proud Truth's times have been uniformly slow, suggesting that he isn't as talented as Rhoman Rule, but trainer John Veitch points out that his stretch-running colt may have one edge in the Wood: all the other contenders are speed horses.
"Maybe Eternal Prince and Rhoman Rule will go out and cut each other's throats," Veitch said. "That would give us an opportunity to use Proud Truth's style of running to his best advantage."
It is virtually certain that Eternal Prince will be setting the pace. He won the Gotham Stakes two weeks ago with with a dazzling display of speed, and it's doubtful that Rhoman Rule or anybody else will be able to pressure him early. If he can carry his speed 1 1/8 miles, he will be a tough horse to beat. Eternal Prince scored his five-length Gotham victory over Pancho Villa, a Secretariat colt who plenty of people wrote off after that defeat. In fact, he ran very well. He tried to chase the winner's lightning-fast pace that day, and even when Eternal Prince ran away from him he didn't quit, and held on gamely for second place.
The Wood may be a very different type of race.
Kevin Rodine, the assistant to trainer Wayne Lukas, said, "With two definite speed horses in Eternal Prince and Rhoman Rule, we can sit wherever we desire in the race. Pancho Villa has trained very well for this race. We feel we have a nice fresh horse, and we're going to take our best shot."
With only only six horses entered in the Wood -- the other two are El Basco and Cutlass Reality -- the race figures to be run without excuses and provide an accurate barometer of all these horses' abilities.
"This is the toughest stakes before the Derby," Rhoman Rule's trainer, Angel Penna Jr., said. "All the Wood horses are experimenting. They're all stakes horses, and weight-wise it will be the first time a 3-year-old carries 126 pounds. It's going to be a rough race, and the Wood winner will have a beautiful shot at winning the Derby."