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Few sayings on the racetrack are older than "horses for courses," and by now there can be no doubt that the course for Instrument Landing is New York's Aqueduct. Last Saturday he won the $142,750 Wood Memorial there—as good a horse race as one would ever hope to see. At the finish of the 1? miles, Instrument Landing's nose was just in front of the onrushing Screen King, with intriguing newcomer Czaravich half a length back in third, a nose in front of Smarten. The Wood was one of the most competitive pre- Kentucky Derby races in the past few years, but it left those fans looking toward Louisville in something of a quandary. Does Instrument Landing, rated seventh behind Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster among 1978's top 2-year-olds in the Experimental Handicap, have to carry that Aqueduct track around with him to be a winner?
Perhaps not, but if he could he would. Since November 1978, Instrument Landing has run six times and won three stakes. The three victories have all come at Aqueduct. In his other three races, all at Santa Anita, Instrument Landing, who is owned by Thomas Bancroft and his brother William of Maryland's Pen-Y-Bryn Farm, could finish no better than fifth. Doing poorly on one track, however, doesn't mean that a horse can't move on to another and rebuild sagging fortunes. As recently as 1976, Bold Forbes struggled at Santa Anita before returning to Aqueduct, where he performed like a different horse. Bold Forbes went on to win the Wood, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont.
Instrument Landing, a son of Grey Dawn II-Pate A Choux, is that rarity, a horse that has faced both Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster. In the Young America stakes at the Meadowlands in New Jersey last October, Instrument Landing lost to Spectacular Bid by a neck while getting nine pounds from the winner. This April at Santa Anita, Instrument Landing lost to Flying Paster by 16 lengths while running at equal weights in the Santa Anita Derby. Instrument Landing encountered serious difficulties on the first turn in the Santa Anita Derby and was never in contention, winding up seventh.
The Wood is the last real chance a New York-based horse has of convincing his owners that he is competitive enough to start in the Kentucky Derby. Falling as it does two weeks before the first leg of the Triple Crown, its timing is perfect, and the success of Wood winners at Churchill Downs in recent years has been impressive. In 1975 Foolish Pleasure won the Wood and the Derby; in 1976 Bold Forbes did likewise, as did Seattle Slew in 1977. Last year Believe It won the Wood before finishing third to Affirmed and Alydar in both the Derby and the Preakness.
The 55th Wood was interesting for several reasons. General Assembly, a good-looking son of Secretariat, entered the race following a strong win in the Gotham two weeks before. Screen King, one of the heroes of the barren winter scene in New York, had won four of his six races while never finishing worse than third and was being stretched out to 1? miles for the first time. Smarten, who had run second to Golden Act in the Arkansas Derby, had zigzagged his way across the country to try the Wood. Although not nominated to the Kentucky Derby, Smarten couldn't be overlooked in the Wood.
And in a period of a month, Czaravich (by Nijinsky II from Black Satin II), who was unraced as a 2-year-old, had blossomed and was entered in the Wood with only three races—run at distances of 1[3/16] miles, 1 mile and 70 yards and 1 mile—behind him. While he had shown his awkward greenness on each of those occasions, there was no doubt that Czaravich had potential. And he was trained by Billy Turner, who had brought Seattle Slew through his 2-year-old races and the Triple Crown undefeated. Turner has a reputation for excellence as a trainer, but he is also one to move a horse carefully.
"I know that it may be asking quite a bit of Czaravich to tackle experienced horses at this stage," Turner said before the Wood, "but he has done well so far. I expect him to run good, but I also expect him to have to run very good to beat General Assembly, Screen King and Instrument Landing."
About an hour before starting time, Turner and David Whiteley, Instrument Landing's trainer, were in the receiving barn on the backstretch, passing the time before their horses would be called to the track. "Billy, put the light on in Czaravich's stall," Whiteley said. "I want to get a look at him." The switch was turned on and there stood big (16.2 hands), handsome Czaravich. Whiteley looked at the powerful horse, then turned to Turner and, in mock horror, joked, "Well, I've seen him now and I understand why you kept the light off."
None of the trainers of the top horses in the Wood thought they would have to face so large a field. On the morning that entries were taken, General Assembly's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, said, "I've heard that 13 horses are entered. I find that hard to believe." Turner, on the other hand, said, "I don't expect more than eight horses to run."
Ten horses ultimately started, with General Assembly, thus far Secretariat's most successful son, with earnings of $205,000, drawing the outside post position, a difficult obstacle to overcome because of the short run to the first turn at Aqueduct. General Assembly left the gate stumbling, and when he was sent into the first turn by Jockey Jacinto Vasquez, he was carried wide.