Saturday’s Grade 1, $750,000 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets at Saratoga Race Course is a prestigious race for older horses eyeing the Breeders’ Cup Classic and is run at 1 1/8 miles on dirt.
Last week, we saw why Saratoga is nicknamed the “graveyard of champions” quite literally when 2017 champion juvenile male and heavy favorite Good Magic finished off the board in the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. Under a perfect ride by Javier Castellano, Catholic Boy won in dominant fashion at 7.10-1 odds. The Woodward Stakes is next up, and Saturday’s race attracts a full field of 14 horses shipping in from all over the country. As with many of these top-tier Grade 1 races, class plays a key role when analyzing how the Woodward will play out.
Here are five questions/perspectives derived from reader comments on Twitter that are worth considering while poring over the Woodward past performances.
1. “Does Seeking the Soul have a legit shot in the Woodward? … Really kind of like him on Saturday. Term of Art also looks kind of sneaky to me.” – @DanonymousMan
From a class standpoint, Seeking the Soul is one of the two North American dirt Grade 1 winners in the Woodward field, the other being Tapwrit. Yoshida (on turf) and Kurilov (in South America) are the other two starters that have Grade 1 wins. Going back to Seeking the Soul, he won the Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare last fall at Churchill Downs, beating recent Whitney Stakes winner Diversify. In addition to that win, he ran in both the 2016 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets as a 3-year-old after just breaking his maiden and in January’s Pegasus Stakes Invitational won by 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner. In the Pegasus, he finished close behind the morning-line favorite for the Woodward, Gunnevera, and in my opinion ran the better race. Seeking the Soul also has a win on this track and two wins at this distance. He is a very logical contender.
Term of Art is a horse I have always been fond of, and I thought he was one that would develop and improve as he grew older. He has indeed moved forward this year as a 4-year-old, and a big part of that could be due to his new trainer, Brad Cox. He has to continue to progress, but he has ability, and some back class from his early races. His chances in the Woodward are far from impossible, and he’s a horse that is worth including on tickets at a big price.
2. “The race shape is not ideal, but Gunnevera outclasses the field in the Woodward and he loves Saratoga.” – @derby1592
I have to agree that both of Gunnevera’s Saratoga races have been solid. He was very flashy winning the 2016 Grade 2 Saratoga Special as a juvenile, and arguably his best race came in last year’s Grade 1 Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets when he finished a good second behind West Coast. Still, I have a hard time considering him the class of the field considering he has yet to win a Grade 1 stakes. From a trip perspective, the pace on Saturday should be honest enough. Even though there does not project to be a meltdown scenario with many need-the-lead types killing each other on the front end, Gunnevera has shown he is the type of horse that does not need a lot of pace to run his race. In fact, in his last two wins he rallied into a softer early pace. He actually runs better with the pace being average to soft early on – that keeps him from getting too far behind the leaders.
3. “Todd Pletcher is likely entering Tapwrit, Patch, and Rally Cry …. I don’t think any of them could hit the board.” – @jeffbyrnes96
Going through those runners, to start off, Rally Cry has his work cut out for him leaving from post 14. He will need to use energy early to get a good position, and I would imagine the three horses – Leofric, Sunny Ridge, and Zanotti – directly to his inside will have to do the same in order to not get caught wide in the first turn. Rally Cry has some solid races at this level and distance, and he is likely fitter in his second start off of a layoff, but it’s hard to see how he works out the right trip to win the Woodward. As for Patch, I would agree with Jeffrey – he is a nice horse but class-wise is a cut below Grade 1 level. Tapwrit, as I mentioned earlier, is the other North American dirt Grade 1 winner in this field. He is definitely worth a look at 6-1 morning-line odds in the Woodward, but it takes some creativity to back him as a clear win candidate. When he ran in the Travers Stakes last year, something was off – he appeared physically different than in his previous races and he became fractious in the starting gate that day. It was no surprise to see that a long layoff followed. Tapwrit ran well in his return race at Belmont Park when finishing third this June – and maybe it was too big of an effort in that he took a step back in his next start, the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes. I can be forgiving of his fourth-place finish in the recent Grade 1 Whitney Stakes because of the weather, the track condition, and mostly the excessive delay in the starting time. The fact that he is wheeled back in this spot shows a solid level of confidence by trainer Todd Pletcher. I would not be surprised to see him make an improved, competitive effort in this race.
4. “Is Yoshida really going to try dirt?” – @SwiftHitter
Just as a “what-if,” let’s pretend all of Yoshida’s races coming into Saturday’s race were on dirt instead of turf. Is he faster than his Woodward opponents? He has races that are comparable to other horses in the field, but no overwhelming edge on speed figures. Does he have a class edge? He is a Grade 1 winner, taking the Grade 1 Old Forester Turf Classic earlier this year at Churchill Downs. My story, and I am sticking to it, is that on that day, he ran on the better part (i.e. the outside lanes) of the yielding turf course and his winning effort was flattered by that trip. Is he in good form? I’d say yes – in his most recent race, when he finished fifth in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga, he did not receive a good ride and had a rough trip. I’m not sure he would have won that race with a perfect trip, but still, he was compromised. Making a jockey change to Joel Rosario for the Woodward is a pretty clear indication that his connections feel the same way. Lastly, does Yoshida have a pace advantage on in the Woodward? This is the biggest concern in my opinion, as I’m not sure what kind of trip he will be able work out from the inside post position. If he tries to close from dead last he is in trouble, and if he tries to stalk he could get caught running faster early fractions that he is accustomed to, and that will hurt his chances late. Overall, it’s just tough to envision a winning trip for him, and in that respect he reminds me of Wonder Gadot from the Travers last week.
5 “Who do you think will win (the Woodward Stakes) this year?” – @TheNYRA
I have a hard time looking past Seeking the Soul as a logical win candidate. He fits on speed, class, pace, and he’s in form coming into this race fresh for trainer Dallas Stewart. I am mildly interested in Tapwrit as one of three entered Saturday for Todd Pletcher. A horse that might be somewhat overlooked by bettors is Kurilov for Chad Brown. From a class perspective, he is a Group 1 winner in his native Chile, and he’s a neck away from being a Grade 1 winner on turf earlier in the year at Gulfstream Park. He was switched to grass after his first two dirt starts by his U.S. connections, and they’ve recently brought him back to dirt. He needs to have some things go his way in the Woodward, but he’s far from impossible at what should be a square price.
The next “Five Questions” will focus on the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Sept. 29, a Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Until then, buena suerte!