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ONE WAY or another, the Wood Memorial was a defining moment for War Pass last Saturday. If the 2007 champion 2-year-old goes on to win the Kentucky Derby on May 3, the colt's valiant second-place finish in the Wood at Aqueduct will be remembered as the moment he removed the stain left by his mystifying 23 1/4-length defeat three weeks earlier in the Tampa Bay Derby. If War Pass comes up short at Churchill Downs, the Wood will have been the race that exposed his greatest flaw: He can't win at the longer distances.
Breaking from post 5 as the 4--5 favorite, War Pass used his brilliant speed to beat eight challengers to the first turn, then held off a bid from Inner Light through an opening quarter mile that was run in a suicidal 22.46 seconds. After leading all the way around the track, War Pass dug in gamely through the stretch but was unable to hold off the surging Tale of Ekati, who beat him under the wire by a half length. It was a gritty performance, if not a strategically sound one. The time of 1:52.35 was the slowest Wood since 1952. "I'm still glad with the way he ran," said War Pass's trainer, Nick Zito, after the race. "At least he wasn't up the track this time."
But whatever remained of his colt's aura of invincibility—War Pass won the first five starts of his career, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October, without ever being headed—is gone. In Tampa, War Pass was unable to respond after being beaten out of the gate. On Saturday he and jockey Cornelio Velasquez showed no inclination to ease off the gas when challenged for the lead. And doubts about his ability to sustain his considerable speed beyond a mile were reinforced. (His sire, Cherokee Run, is valued for his ability to produce sprinters.)
The Derby field is sure to include at least one other bona fide speed horse who will challenge War Pass from the start: unbeaten Big Brown, whose front-running victory in last month's Florida Derby is the most impressive prep performance to date. ( Big Brown covered the mile and an eighth in 1:48.16.) If War Pass couldn't win at the Wood's 11/8-mile distance while being pressed on the lead, there seems little reason to think that he will last an extra furlong in the Kentucky Derby. After the Wood, Barclay Tagg, the trainer of late-running Tale of Ekati, noted as much, saying, " Big Brown and War Pass both being in the Derby might work out very well for us."
Another colt who figures to make a big move in the Churchill Downs homestretch is Colonel John, who scored an impressive half-length victory on Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby. Shuffled from sixth back to ninth on the final turn, Colonel John barely flinched when forced to deal with traffic, waited patiently for space and then bounded clear down the center of the track for his fourth win in six career starts.
If there is a ray of light for War Pass, it is that the Wood represented his stiffest test since winning his 2008 debut at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 24. "This was a great conditioning race for him," says the colt's owner, Robert LaPenta. "We didn't want his best race today. We want that on May 3."
Run to the Roses
Horses to watch in this Saturday's key Kentucky Derby prep races, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Arkansas Derby.
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