Nominations close on Saturday for the $750,000 Wood Memorial (G1) going 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct on April 3, and Gotham S. (G3) winner AWESOME ACT (Awesome Again), Fountain of Youth S. (G2) winner ESKENDEREYA (Giant's Causeway) and the runners-up from both races form a talented core of Kentucky Derby (G1) hopefuls likely for the 86th running of New York's final major stepping stone to the Triple Crown.
In all, 20 Kentucky Derby winners have prepped in the Wood, most recently Funny Cide, who finished second in 2003 and went on to win the Derby and the Preakness S. (G1). Empire Maker, who won the Wood that year, then took the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont S. (G1).
English import Awesome Act made the trip across the pond a worthwhile one, rallying through the stretch to post an impressive 1 1/4-length victory over YAWANNA TWIST (Yonaguska) in the March 6 Gotham at Aqueduct, his first start on dirt. The 1 1/16-mile race was also his first start of the year and first since finishing a fast-closing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G2) last November.
The three-year-old chestnut has been bedded down at Belmont Park under the care of trainer Jeremy Noseda's assistants, Wayne Tanner and George Windsor.
"I've brought many horses here over the years from England, and he's settled in the best of any of them," Tanner said. "He's doing wonderfully."
Owned by Mrs. Susan Roy, Awesome Act, who resumed galloping earlier this week, is scheduled to have an easy four-furlong breeze on Saturday and a more serious move either Wednesday or Thursday of next week.
"Jeremy is coming over to watch the work, so it will depend on what flight he gets," Tanner explained.
New York-bred Yawanna Twist, trained by Richard Dutrow, was making his third career start in the Gotham and first against open company. He captured his initial two starts by a combined 9 1/2 lengths.
Zayat Stables' Eskendereya turned in an impressive performance when capturing the Fountain of Youth, taking charge on the turn before drawing away to an eye-catching 8 1/2-length victory over JACKSON BEND (Hear No Evil) on February 20 at Gulfstream Park.
Originally slated for Saturday's Florida Derby (G1), Eskendereya's connections instead opted for the Wood.
"The biggest factor in the decision was the spacing," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "We felt off such a big effort in the Fountain of Youth, six weeks to his next prep made more sense, followed by four weeks to the Kentucky Derby."
Pletcher said Eskendereya, winner of the Pilgrim S. last year at Belmont Park, would have two more works at Palm Meadows before being shipped to his Belmont barn on March 31.
Jackson Bend has finished second in both 2010 starts for his new connections, Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito and owner Robert V. Lapenta. The chestnut colt was runner-up to Winslow Homer (Unbridled's Song) in the Holy Bull on January 23 before digging in to hold second in the Fountain of Youth.
Jackson Bend, who will get a new jockey in Calvin Borel for the Wood, breezed six furlongs in 1:14 at Palm Meadows Thursday morning.
The Wood Memorial, New York's first Grade 1 of the year, will be the third leg of a guaranteed $500,000 all-stakes Pick 4 that will begin in the 7TH race with the 50th running of the Bay Shore S. (G3) for three-year-olds sprinting seven furlongs, continue in the 8TH race with the 98th running of the Excelsior S. (G3) and end with the 110th running of the Carter H. (G1) for three-year-olds and up going seven furlongs in the 10TH race.
The 11-race card, which will conclude at 6:20 p.m. (EDT), begins with a 1ST race post time of 1 p.m.
NBC will televise the Wood Memorial live from 5-6 p.m.