Eternal Prince, a colt who was virtually unknown two weeks ago, trounced the country's best 3-year-olds in the Wood Memorial Stakes today.
He led every step of the 1 1/8 miles and scored a 2 3/4-length victory over Proud Truth, with Rhoman Rule third in what was supposed to be the most definitive prep race for the Kentucky Derby.
But it was hardly definitive. Eternal Prince controlled the pace so easily that he still will be met with a great deal of skepticism when he goes to Louisville. And Rhoman Rule's five-length loss on a wet track he probably hated might have constituted an ideal tuneup for the Derby.
Eternal Prince had never won a stakes race until he gave a dazzling display of speed April 6 to win the one-mile Gotham Stakes in sensationally fast time. That victory prompted his breeder, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, to buy a three-eighths interest in the colt this week.
Having seen what Eternal Prince could do in the Gotham, his rivals had little desire to get into an enervating speed duel with him, and so today at Aqueduct the colt had an easy time getting to the lead.
Jockey Richard Migliore didn't even have to urge the colt as he shot out of the gate and took command. Jacinto Vasquez restrained speedy Rhoman Rule and took him far behind the leader. That left Angel Cordero Jr., to press the pace with his mount, Pancho Villa, but he didn't press it too hard at all.
On this extremely fast racing strip, Eternal Prince loped the first quarter mile in a slow 24 2/5 seconds and the half mile in :48 flat. Approaching the far turn he accelerated and started to shake off Pancho Villa. Then Rhoman Rule took up the chase. He moved strongly on the turn -- outmoving Proud Truth at that point -- but couldn't seriously threaten the leader.
When he weakened in the late stages, the favorite Proud Truth made a late run, but never gave Eternal Prince any cause for concern as he reached the finish line in 1:48 2/5. Considering the speed of the track, the time was not impressive.
Eternal Prince paid $7, $3.20 and $2.80. Proud Truth returned $3 and $2.20 and Rhoman Rule paid $2.60.
Steinbrenner, asked after the race what his plans were for his latest free agent, said, "As far as the Derby goes, that's up to Butch Lenzini. I don't tell my trainer or manager what to do."
But Lenzini didn't need any prodding. "It looks like Kentucky now," he said. "He had everything in control all the way."
The second- and third-place finishers are also Louisville-bound. Proud Truth didn't live up to his billing as the co-favorite for the Derby today, but his stretch-running effort was at least respectable.
Rhoman Rule's management was looking ahead to the Derby with as much optimism as Steinbrenner and Co. Trainer Angel Penna Jr., had said repeatedly this season that his colt's one great weakness is his inability to run in the mud, and when heavy rains fell here Friday he knew his chances were slim.
"This colt ran really well," he said, "for being off 40 days and having to carry 12 more pounds that he's used to. The track didn't help us at all -- as a matter of fact he hated it. I haven't changed my mind about Kentucky. We'll be leaving on Tuesday."
A host of others will be heading for Kentucky, too.
It had appeared when the Wood drew such a strong field that the race might point out a clear leader of this equine generation. But in its aftermatch the 3-year-old picture is still muddled, and it won't be clarified until these horses meet again in Kentucky.