If Saturday's running of the wood Memorial at Aqueduct racetrack is a harbinger of next month's Kentucky Derby, then the Run for the Roses will be one hell of a horse race. In midstretch on the muddy track, Gulch, with jockey Jose Santos rhythmically whipping him, slowly moved up on the leader, Gone West, and the two battled, step for step, neck and neck, all the way to the wire. The photo-finish sign flashed immediately, and while many of the 20,586 fans on hand were in doubt about the outcome of the race, at least one among them somehow knew that Gulch had won. Gulch's owner, the normally reserved and very proper Peter M. Brant, leaped out of his clubhouse box seat, threw his arms around trainer Leroy Jolley and shouted, "We did it! We got it done!" Then he cast his eyes toward the heavens and let out a loud "Whew!"
The win was a vindication for Gulch, who had finished third in the Gotham on April 4, beaten by 9� lengths by the Woody Stephens-trained Gone West. But the real loser in Saturday's race was not Gone West, who was beaten by a head at the wire, but Capote, who despite a fourth place finish in the Gotham, had been sent off as the 6-5 favorite in the Wood. Last year's 2-year-old champion once again finished fourth, beaten by nearly eight lengths in a race that was supposed to show the world that Capote was not kaput, that his Gotham performance was just the "tightener" his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had hoped for.
"My plan has been to have him in the Gotham, to look good in the Wood and to try and win the Kentucky Derby," said Lukas before Saturday's race. "It's been a progressive plan. I think you'll see a marked, marked improvement in the Wood."
The 1?-mile Wood was an important step toward Churchill Downs for many of the eight entries because it went around two turns, like the Derby, and because all the horses carried 126 pounds, Derby weight. A decisive win by Capote would have reestablished him as the Louisville favorite and gotten the press off the back of Lukas, whose limited training schedule for Capote had been sharply criticized. It would also have cleared up a very murky Derby picture.
For the first three quarters of a mile, Lukas's plan seemed to be right on target. Capote, with Angel Cordero Jr. aboard, broke well and zipped straight to the front, galloping easily on the lead until the far turn, where he was passed by Gone West, who had been running third up the backstretch. Meanwhile, Santos was laying well off the pace with Gulch, hugging the rail and saving ground. "Gulch always indicated to me that he was a horse that wanted to make a late run," Jolley said of the colt, who was always on or near the lead in his best 2-year-old races. "If we were going to make him into a major 3-year-old competitor, he had to develop that style. Sometimes you look stupid trying to stick with something that isn't working, but in this case it finally worked out."
It Jolley well did. Gulch was sixth at the half-mile mark, fourth after three quarters, and second to Gone West by two and a half lengths at the top of the stretch. Then these two sons of Mr. Prospector went at it, with Gulch prevailing in 1:49 flat, a moderate clocking on a track that had yielded fast times all day. Shawklit Won, who ran uncharacteristically close to the lead, passed a tiring Capote to finish third.
After all the hooting and hollering, Brant, his emotions tightly under control again, stood in the winner's circle and soberly said, "The Kentucky Derby is the greatest race in America, and I'm just tickled to death to have a horse go there." He may in fact have two horses go there. If his other notable 3-year-old, Leo Castelli, who has yet to win a major race, scores in this week's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, said Brant, "we'll load all our guns."
Speaking of loaded guns, the Lukas stable could send as many as six horses to Louisville, including Talinum, the winner of the Flamingo Stakes, and the now slightly tarnished star, Capote.
"I think he ran a creditable race," Lukas said after the Wood. "We were not trying to win the Wood," he repeated. "We're trying to win the Kentucky Derby." Aren't they all.
Stephens blasted Capote's performance in the Wood while hedging about the direction Gone West will go. "If Lukas goes to the Derby with this horse, he'll be last," Stephens said flatly. "If he goes, he's nuts."