Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial shapes up to be a tremendous race. Samraat and Uncle Sigh, who exit a pair of thrilling battles in the Grade 3 Gotham and Grade 3 Withers, are the most accomplished members of the 11-horse field, and there is an exciting new face in the form of the unbeaten Social Inclusion, who will make his stakes debut following a pair of runaway wins at Gulfstream Park.
A total of 170 points, including 100 to the winner, will be up for the grabs in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" event.
Social Inclusion has been tabbed as the 2-1 morning line favorite in his first start outside of Florida.
A 7 1/2-length debut winner at six furlongs on February 22, the Pioneerof the Nile colt posted an awesome victory when stretching out to turns in a March 12 allowance, establishing a new track record for 1 1/16 miles while scoring by 10 lengths over Grade 2 winner Honor Code. The latter performance netted him a whopping 106 BRIS Speed rating, a figure that lays over his rivals Saturday.
"Our plan was to come here for the Wood and then go directly to the Preakness, but last time he ran so good we started thinking about the Derby and the Triple Crown," owner Ronald Sanchez said. "This horse is really special. If you see the workouts he does, he's floating. Last Saturday he went in :46 4/5 and galloped out in :59 3/5, so easy. He's a classy horse, and you have to give him the chance.
"He's a professional horse, and it's hard to find a professional horse. We respect all the horses, but we're not scared of anybody."
Luis Contreras, who guided the Manny Azpurua trainee in his first two outings, will be in to ride the front-running Social Inclusion.
Samraat is unbeaten in five career starts for Richard Violette Jr., easily defeating state-bred foes in his first three outings before proving his class in graded events. He edged away late to post a half-length victory in the February 1 Withers and eked out a neck decision in the March 1 Gotham. The Noble Causeway colt will break from post 8 with regular rider Jose Ortiz.
"Social Inclusion is obviously a very talented horse, but there are some real horses in this race," Violette said of the 7-2 second choice on the morning line . "I think we've got a strong hand in this race because our horse will do anything the jockey asks. If we're going to break running and they decide to give us the lead, it will be a controlling lead. If someone else wants the lead, they're welcome to it.
"There's no question we want to win -- it's a $1 million race, it's a Grade 1, it's in our backyard...our objective is to run our 'A' race without leaving everything on the table, which is greedy, but then, everyone is in the same boat."
Uncle Sigh, a New York-bred colt like Samraat, rolled to a 14-length maiden win in late December before jumping straight to stakes company in the Withers. He set the pace that afternoon before giving way grudgingly and raced forwardly in the Gotham before being caught in tight quarters through the stretch, sandwiched between Samraat and In Trouble. The son of Indian Charlie gamely fought all the way to the finish line, recording his second straight runner-up, and Corey Nakatani will retain the mount for Gary Contessa.
Uncle Sigh is the early third choice at 5-1.
"My opinion is the favorite for the Derby comes out of this race," Contessa said of the 90th edition of the Wood, which will air on NBCSN from 5:30 to 7 p.m. (EDT). "If Social Inclusion wins, hands-down, he'll be the favorite, and if you beat him, then you're going to be one of the favorites. The whole Derby picture is so cloudy right now, and I think the Wood is going to produce the Derby favorite if he does it impressively, or if it's Social Inclusion or Samraat. All eyes will be on the Wood this year."
Noble Moon, unraced since a two-length victory in the Grade 2 Jerome in early January, will return to the races for conditioner Leah Gyarmati. The Malibu Moon colt has posted consecutive one-mile works in advance of the 1 1/8-mile race.
"He's been doing really well since Saturday's breeze (1:45 2/5), which is what I had been waiting for before making the decision (to enter)," Gyarmati said. "He appears to be ready."
Listed at 12-1 on the morning line, Noble Moon will be ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr.
Kristo invades for John Sadler following a well-beaten third behind California Chrome in the Grade 2 San Felipe. The 6-1 fourth choice will pick up a new rider in Martin Garcia.
Schivarelli steps up to make his stakes bow following a pair of nice performances on the inner track at Aqueduct. He won at first asking on January 13, rallying from just off the pace to score by 1 1/4 lengths, and then crushed entry-level allowance foes by a 12-length margin while stretching out in distance February 21. The Eddie Kenneally charge receives a positive jockey switch to Javier Castellano.
"We would have preferred to ease up the ladder with him," said David Greathouse II, whose Pike Place Racing owns Schivarelli in partnership with Homewrecker Racing. "The Wood is a tough spot and it's a big group of horses, but it's that time of year and we feel he deserves a shot."
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has captured three of the past four editions of the Wood, is in the unusual position of saddling an 8-1 longshot Harpoon, most recently fifth in the Gotham.
"The horse has shown us he has a little more ability than his record suggests," said Pletcher, who won the Wood in 2010 with Eskendereya, in 2012 with Gemologist, and last year with Verrazano. "In his races, he's been a little intimidated by kickback, but he seems to be maturing and getting stronger through the process."
John Velazquez takes over the reins on the son of white-hot sire Tapit.
Completing the strong field is Grade 2-placed Wicked Strong, who will attempt to rebound from a pair of unplaced finishes at Gulfstream; Private Terms winner Kid Cruz; recent maiden winner Los Borrachos, and Effinex, who earned his first career win when defeating optional claiming foes on March 23.