It was difficult to draw any conclusions about Centennial Farms' Preservationist after his first two appearances in graded stakes races.
Though the son of Arch did not reach that elite level of competition until this summer at the age of 6, he turned in a dazzling victory July 6 in the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park when, in his very first stakes try, he beat multiple Grade 1 winner Catholic Boy by 4 ½ lengths going 1 ¼ miles.
His second try did not turn out as well. He was washy and edgy before the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga Race Course and then set the pace during the pace before fading to fourth, 7 ¾ lengths behind McKinzie in the Aug. 3 stakes.
Try No. 3 resulted in another reversal of fortunes, only this time on the positive side of the ledger. Rating in third early on, Preservationist split rivals in the stretch under Junior Alvarado and surged to an exciting half-length victory over Bal Harbour in the $750,000, Grade 1 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets Aug. 31 on the final Saturday of the Saratoga meet.
"He was training a lot better. He was more relaxed. When we schooled him in the paddock two days ago, he was calm and didn't break out," said Don Little Jr., president and co-owner of Centennial, one of the sport's most successful partnerships. "He was calm on the racetrack warming up, so I thought we were in a good spot."
Favored Yoshida, the 2018 Woodward winner who beat Preservationist when he was second in the Whitney, was another half-length back in third after facing a much more focused Centennial runner.
"He was a little more settled today than when he was in the Whitney," said trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who won the 2016 Woodward with Shaman Ghost and whose father, H. Allen Jerkens, defeated the legendary Secretariat in the 1973 Woodward with Prove Out. "I thought he was much better in the post parade. He was able to stay with the pony. Last time, he wasted a lot of energy. He's been doing well since that last race in his workouts and his whole demeanor. Physically, I thought he looked terrific."
As for what's next for Preservationist, Little adopted a "wait and see" approach. After all, in the space of less than two months the horse purchased for $485,000 from the Gainesway consignment at the 2014 Keeneland September Yearling Sale has risen from the allowance ranks to a two-time graded stakes winner.
"He's taken two big steps forward," Little said about the newly minted Grade 1 winner.
The $750,000 Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at 1 ¼ miles at Belmont Park Sept. 28 is certainly a possibility, and for down the road, there's another major 1 ¼-mile test in the $6 million Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park Nov. 2, though Little has some reservations about a trip west.
"You have to put the Breeders' Cup in the mix. I'm not saying we're going, but you don't rule it out by any means," Little said. "Historically, eastern horses shipping west don't do that well, so you have to take that into consideration. There is some acclimation involved. It's easier to come east than go west."
Following the scratch of Vino Rosso, who was third in the Whitney, a field of eight broke from the gate in the Woodward, with Mr. Buff carving out fractions of :23.98 and :47.97 and Preservationist tracking in third, 1 ½ lengths behind, after the first half-mile. Yoshida, the 2-1 favorite, was seventh, ahead of only 97.25-1 shot Forewarned.
When Mr. Buff faltered, Bal Harbour moved up from second and grabbed the lead turning for home under Javier Castellano. At the same time, Alvarado aggressively moved through a seam in the stretch, driving Preservationist to the lead at the sixteenth pole and then crossing the wire in 1:48.11 for the 1 1/8 miles as the 3.05-1 third betting choice.
"We regrouped and we went back to do what he really likes to do, which is stalking and having a target, and it worked out great again. He showed some guts today. I got through and he came out on top at the end for me," Alvarado said.
The win was the sixth in 10 starts for Preservationist and increased his earnings to $1,037,300.
"The one we were worried about (Yoshida) was coming at him," Little said, "but at the end he wasn't gaining. It was a great effort."
Red Oak Stable's Bal Harbour, a 4-year-old First Samurai gelding, finished second for a third straight time for trainer Todd Pletcher while racing in Grade 1 company for the first time.
Yoshida, owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International and Head of Plains Partners and trained by four-time Woodward winner Bill Mott, finished a length behind Preservationist while bidding for back-to-back wins in the Woodward.
"We were a little bit further out than I wanted to be. He ran his race. He came over and I thought we were going to get there. The pace just wasn't as fast up front and they didn't come back to me," jockey Joel Rosario said.