Undefeated three-year-olds Verrazano and Vyjack are expected to head the field for the 89th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial on April 6, Aqueduct Racetrack's final major prep for the May 4 Kentucky Derby.
Unraced as a two-year-old, Verrazano won his first two starts at Gulfstream Park by a combined margin of 24 lengths, and heads into the 1 1/8-mile Wood off a commanding three-length victory on March 9 in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby. Trained by Todd Pletcher, the More Than Ready colt will again have the services of Hall of Famer John Velazquez in the Wood.
Vyjack will be seeking his fifth consecutive victory at Aqueduct for trainer Rudy Rodriguez. At age two, the Into Mischief gelding broke his maiden on November 10 and took the Traskwood overnight stakes on December 9.
He then launched his three-year-old campaign with a hard-fought victory around two turns in the Grade 2 Jerome. Most recently he was an impressive winner of the Grade 3 Gotham, rallying from 10th at the top of the stretch and going on to a 2 1/4-length win.
Second to Vyjack in the Traskwood was Always in a Tiz, and on Thursday trainer Dominick Schettino confirmed that Calvin Borel will be aboard that dark bay son of Tiznow in the Wood Memorial.
The sophomore colt enters the race off a fifth-place finish over a sloppy 1 1/16 miles on February 18 in the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park.
Always in a Tiz posted a five-furlong breeze in 1:03 1/5 over the fast Belmont Park training track Thursday in preparation for the Wood.
"Anthony Bonomo Jr., who is the racing manager for (owner) MeB Stables, and I discussed it before making the decision," Schettino said of the move to Borel, whose last appearance at Aqueduct came in 2010, when he was second on Jackson Bend in the Wood Memorial and second on Hurricane Ike in the Bay Shore. "He knows how to win the big races and he knows how to win the Derby."
The 47-year-old Borel, who scored his 5,000th career victory on March 7 at Oaklawn Park, has won three of the past six Derbies -- in 2007 with Street Sense, in 2009 with 50-1 shot Mine That Bird and in 2010 with Super Saver.
Always in a Tiz, a $175,000 yearling purchase at the Fasig-Tipton sales at Saratoga in 2011, broke his maiden on September 3 at the Spa, finished second to Vyjack in the Traskwood overnight stakes on December 9 at Aqueduct and third by a neck on January 21 in Oaklawn's Smarty Jones stakes.
After failing to distinguish himself in his first four starts, Mr Palmer has improved vastly since joining Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott's New York string and will enter the Wood Memorial on a two-race winning streak.
Soundly beaten in four starts in Kentucky, Mr Palmer finished second by three-quarters of a length in his New York debut, a maiden special weight on Aqueduct's inner track on December 15. He made an early move along the backstretch when he broke his maiden by a neck on February 17 at the Big A, then employed an outside charge from the back of the pack to win Laurel Park's Private Terms by 3 1/2 lengths on March 9.
"I didn't see him for two months, and he's changed from when he first arrived from Churchill," said Leana Willaford, assistant to Mott. "He's mentally and physically matured a lot. He's an attractive horse and a good mover, and as it turned out he's going to be (a good horse).
"He's made a steady progression almost every start. Some horses just take a little longer."
Junior Alvarado has ridden Mr Palmer in his past three starts and will have the assignment once again for the Wood. Willaford said Alvarado's patient riding style suits Mr Palmer well.
"Whatever the reasons are, (Mr Palmer) has a tendency to be a little flat footed (at the start)," Willaford explained. "Your best move is to let him get himself together and make a run like what Junior did with him last time. He ended up seven wide the other day, but he understands it takes a little to get the horse running. He has to get comfortable with himself, and he takes a little bit of riding. With those types you don't want to be tapping on the breaks."
In addition to the above, the Wood is expected to attract Gotham runner-up West Hills and third-place finisher Elnaawi; Grade 2-placed Normandy Invasion, most recently fifth by only 1 1/2 lengths in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds; and maiden winners Freedom Child and Quinzieme Monarque.
Indy's Illusion, beaten a neck on March 10 in a Gulfstream Park optional claimer at the 1 1/8-mile Wood distance, is possible for the race. The A.P. Indy colt was third behind next-out Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Orb in an optional claimer to open his sophomore campaign on January 26.