Saturday is the day that had been billed as "Super Saturday," when top 3-year-olds would have their final preps for the Kentucky Derby in four major stakes from coast to coast.
But the $297,500 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct attracted the only colts who can be considered bona fide Derby contenders. The winner here almost certainly will be one of the favorites at Churchill Downs two weeks hence. The winners of the $500,000 Arkansas Derby, the $250,000 Garden State Stakes and the $225,000 California Derby will earn big money but probably not much credibility.
Tasso, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old of 1985, probably will be favored to win the Wood, even though his chief rival, Mogambo, beat him in the Gotham Stakes two weeks ago. But Tasso encountered bad racing luck that day. "He was bumped and sandwiched at the start," trainer Neil Drysdale said. "He had to stop abruptly. He would have been much closer."
Moreover, Drysdale probably had not tuned up Tasso for his maximum performance in the Gotham. He didn't equip him with the blinkers he wore in the Breeders' Cup, saying "I didn't want him to be too sharp." Saturday, the blinkers will be on, and Tasso may have the edge.
Mogambo was one of the country's top-ranked 2-year-olds last season, and gave possibly the best performance of his career when he won the one-mile Gotham in 1:34 4/5. His trainer, Leroy Jolley, already has won the Kentucky Derby twice, and he knows how to rev up a 3-year-old for a top effort at this time of year.
While the Wood is widely perceived as a two-horse race, there is an outsider with a plausible chance to pull an upset. Groovy is a brilliantly fast colt, but in both the Gotham and the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes here he had to cope with another speedster, Zabaleta.
In the Gotham, Zabaleta's pressure forced Groovy to set a dizzying pace, running the half mile in 44 4/5 and six furlongs in 1:08 3/5. Predictably, he weakened after that. Saturday, with Zabaleta running in the Garden State Stakes, Groovy will have a more reasonable chance to take a comfortable lead and stay in front all the way.
The rest of the seven-horse field includes Broad Brush, the Maryland horse that has won three stakes in a row; Glider Pilot, Tinchen's Prince and Mr. Classic.
In the other stakes for 3-year-olds Saturday: Bordeaux Bob will be trying to stay eligible for the same $2 million bonus Spend a Buck earned last year. All he has to do is win the 1 1/8-mile Garden State Stakes, followed by the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby. His chances of pulling off this feat are slim, although he could win Saturday because the Garden State has attracted no stars. Bordeaux Bob's main competition will come from Zabaleta and from Fobby Forbes, whom he narrowly defeated in the Cherry Hill Mile two weeks ago. In the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, a lightly raced colt named Vernon Castle will try to establish that he is a legitimate Derby contender. The son of Seattle Slew recently won a maiden race at Santa Anita by eight lengths, and now he will be facing some of the West's lesser-grade stakes horses. Any good 3-year-old who shipped to Oaklawn Park could have had the Arkansas Derby at his mercy, but getting to Hot Springs, Ark., is easier said than done. Trainer Dick Small considered sending Broad Brush from Pimlico to Oaklawn, but finally passed up a shot at the $500,000 pot.
"The logistics were just too tough," he said. As a result, the 14-horse field is extraordinarily weak. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained entry of Family Style, a filly, and Clear Choice, who has won once in his career, is likely to be favored.