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COMMENTARY

AUGUST 4, 2009

The Woodward Solution

by Vance Hanson

If there was a pantheon devoted to great races of the American turf, the Woodward S. (G1), which will be renewed at Saratoga on September 5, would undoubtedly have its own wing. Inaugurated in 1954, the Woodward for many years often served as the first meeting point between the best older horses and those of the classic generation, much like the Eclipse S. (Eng-G1) and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S. (Eng-G1) serve the same purpose in England.

This was the race that attracted three of the turf's most legendary titans -- Buckpasser, Damascus and Dr. Fager -- for its 1967 renewal to decide Horse of the Year honors. And while the race some still consider the "Race of the Century" ultimately proved anti-climactic, the weight-for-age conditions that made it a proper vehicle to determine the national championship back then remain.

Even after the advent of the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) in 1984, which relegated many historic races to the role of mere "preps," the Woodward has stood its ground and retains its cachet as an important race to win. And championships are still often cemented in the currently nine-furlong test. Holy Bull, for example, locked up Horse of the Year honors with a stunning five-length victory in 1994, making a trip to the Breeders' Cup Classic unnecessary and potentially redundant.

Unfortunately, the Woodward's history of being an annual clash of the generations is itself being relegated to the dustbin. With the extension of the Saratoga meet from four to six weeks, and the date of the Travers S. (G1) pushed back to the last Saturday in August, the Woodward is no longer considered a top goal for three-year-olds. Indeed, the race was moved from its long-time home of Belmont Park to Saratoga several years ago and is now run just one week after the Midsummer Derby.

The good news is that the Woodward can -- this year -- reclaim some of its past glory as the decider of the national championship, albeit with a little cooperation from the necessary protagonists.

Like belly buttons, everyone involved in racing has an opinion on the route RACHEL ALEXANDRA (Medaglia d'Oro) should take next, or where a much-desired clash between her and the undefeated ZENYATTA (Street Cry [Ire]) should occur. Here's one man's opinion on why the Woodward makes the most sense.

Rachel Alexandra's choices are virtually limitless. She could return to the three-year-old filly ranks to run in the Alabama S. (G1), face three-year-old colts again in the Travers S. (G1), run against older fillies and mares in the Personal Ensign S. (G1) or Ruffian H. (G1), or take on older males in the Woodward.

Aside from inscribing her name alongside some legendary names on the Alabama trophy, Rachel Alexandra has nothing more to gain by pummeling her peers yet again, and would certainly not earn any points in the race for Horse of the Year, the prize majority owner Jess Jackson wants most. Likewise, a victory in the Travers over the same group of males she has already beaten in the Preakness S. (G1) and Haskell Invitational (G1) would be a redundant exercise. She's already proven her superiority over them, and the only allure of running there would be in the hopes of ending the long drought of fillies in the Travers, which dates to Lady Rotha in 1915.

A victory in either of the races open to older fillies and mares would certainly be a feather in Rachel's cap, but I know of few people who believe a score over any older mare not named Zenyatta would not be a forgone conclusion. That really only leaves the Woodward as the most logical choice to satisfy purists, who demand that a female candidate for Horse of the Year face and beat older males, and Jackson's desire that his star filly continue to do the extraordinary so that her claims on the gold Eclipse Award would never be in doubt. Jackson, who admits to having witnessed Seabiscuit in action as a young boy, would appreciate the historical significance of a Woodward victory by Rachel Alexandra. No filly or mare has ever won the race, with runners-up Summer Guest (1972) and Lady's Secret (1986) coming closest.

Why would the Woodward be right for Zenyatta? Simply stated, she long ago ran out of competition in Southern California. Following an expected repeat score in Sunday's Clement L. Hirsch S. (G1), her reputation can't be considerably enhanced by defending her titles in the Lady's Secret S. (G1) and Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (G1) alone. This reasoning perhaps runs contrary to the beliefs of owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs, but if they truly believe in their mare's capabilities, it's long past due for them to take her out of her comfort zone.

Personally, I believe Zenyatta to be one of the best older mares of the past two decades. Running on dirt is obviously not an issue, judging from her performance in last year's Apple Blossom H. (G1), and she would arguably be more effective against Rachel Alexandra running around two turns rather than in a theoretical meeting around one turn at Belmont Park. Zenyatta has long since earned a chance to face males at least once, which virtually every filly or mare considered "great," whether successful or not, has done, and the 27-day turnaround between the Hirsch and Woodward, though quick by today's low standards, seems entirely sufficient for a mare of her quality.

Shirreffs' hesitancy at exposing Zenyatta to the potential travails of a pre-race detention barn in New York is reportedly a major obstacle, but not even Shirreffs knows for sure how the amazon would handle the situation. The stable's negative experiences with Giacomo and Tiago in the detention barn prior to their attempts in the Belmont S. (G1) should have no bearing on their decision to race Zenyatta in New York. Giacomo wasn't going to beat Afleet Alex at any rate, and Tiago wasn't going to beat Rags to Riches and Curlin. As this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a once-in-a-lifetime mare, it just makes sense in this instance to not let worries of risk be all-consuming.

Some might ask why the Woodward should be the meeting place between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta rather than a race restricted to fillies and mares. I would argue the timing of the race is perfect for both and the fact it is open to males ensures that the race attracts a fuller field and does not develop into a one-sided romp for the much speedier Rachel Alexandra. Even for a Grade 1-placing, not many owners of a filly or mare are going to want to face both of these Goliaths carrying equal weight on the scale. Perhaps not many of what passes for the cream of the older male division would want to either, but with no present standout and an Eclipse Award of their own on the line, I doubt few would be willing to pass up the chance to beat one or both of the biggest names in the sport. Of course, old-fashioned chauvinism is another potential selling point for participation.

Another reason that makes the Woodward such an exciting possibility is that it could also attract QUALITY ROAD (Elusive Quality), who made a successful return to the track on Monday in the Amsterdam S. (G2) at Saratoga over a solid group of three-year-old sprinters in a time that was two-fifths of a second off the world record for 6 1/2 furlongs on dirt. The Florida Derby (G1) and Fountain of Youth S. (G2) winner was forced to miss the Triple Crown due to quarter-crack issues, and quite possibly would have been the favorite for the Kentucky Derby (G1) if not for the hoof trouble. With the stock of classic winners Mine That Bird (Birdstone) and Summer Bird (Birdstone) taking a tumble over the weekend, Quality Road has arguably regained his status as the most exciting three-year-old colt around.

Trainer Todd Pletcher mentioned before the Amsterdam that he might use the sprint as a prep for the 1 1/4-mile Travers, a race expected to attract Mine That Bird and Summer Bird. While a long-awaited match-up between Quality Road and the two male rivals who wound up with classic glory instead of him would be interesting, the step up from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles is admittedly a demanding one. I think it is certainly within Quality Road's capabilities, but as long as Mine That Bird and Summer Bird continue to rack up losses, thereby diminishing their claim on Eclipse honors, Quality Road will not have accomplished much in a relative sense by beating them in the Travers.

Regardless of whether Rachel Alexandra and/or Zenyatta shows up in the Woodward, Quality Road would probably be better served by pursuing the nine-furlong contest one week after the Travers. The step up in distance is not as severe, and this colt undoubtedly can best what many consider to be a subpar group of older horses. A victory against his elders, even a modest group, might look better on the resume than a victory in the Travers. It would also serve as a nice setup for a stretch-out in the 10-furlong Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), another race that could be at his mercy given the apparent paucity of top older males.

The Woodward, ultimately, could be the race all racing fans have waited for. It is a fair 1 1/8-mile test at one of racing's greatest venues, at the weight-for-age conditions most everyone likes. Championships in the three-year-old male and older male divisions could potentially be decided and, of course, questions regarding which female (or male!) is Horse of the Year could conceivably be put to rest.

Having hooked the worm, let's see if anyone bites.


 

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