A year ago at this time, Aqueduct Racetrack was closed due to the pandemic and no one knew when, or if, there would be a 2020 Triple Crown.
The mood was considerable different April 3 when the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Presented by Resorts World Casino returned from a one-year hiatus.
Yes, there were masks affixed and vaccine cards were a badge of honor.
But in the paddock at the Big A, life was back to normal with winners and losers talking about the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and the sport's all-time leader in earnings, trainer Todd Pletcher, standing tallest of all after sending out the top two finishers.
Yes, normalcy was indeed back in fashion ... except for when you took a close look at Pletcher's sixth winner of the Wood and the incredibly long odds attached to his name on the toteboard.
In one of the most unlikely finishes in recent Triple Crown prep history, the all-Pletcher exacta in the $750,000 Wood consisted of horses priced at 72-1 and 15-1 as Calumet Farm's upstart Bourbonic rallied from last in a field of nine to beat Dynamic One by a head to trigger a $146.50 win payoff and earn 100 qualifying points to secure a spot in the May 1 Run for the Roses.
The exacta combining the two Pletcher horses in the key Triple Crown prep for 3-year-olds paid $906 for $2 and when the trainer was asked if he had any tickets to cash, he just shook his head -- much as most observers did in disbelief when Bourbonic stuck his head in front at the wire.
"I don't have any winning tickets," Pletcher, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner, said.
Nor did Mike Repole, a part owner of Dynamic One, whose 3-year-old was second-best to the longest priced winner in Wood history who posted the slowest time since the race moved to a 1 1/8-mile distance in 1952.
"I didn't think Todd's other horse was going to finish the top eight," Repole said when asked if he bet on an all-Pletcher exacta. "I didn't think the winner had a chance and I don't think the trainer thought he had a chance, but that's why they run the race."
Yes, they ran the race and a 72-1 shot who won in a slow time of 1:54.49 for the 1 1/8 miles somehow topped the rare sight of two Pletcher horses at long prices finishing one-two.
"It's not our general strategy," Pletcher said.
Certainly pointing for the Kentucky Derby with a horse who was coming off a second in an allowance optional claimer at Parx Racing, finishing four lengths behind Market Maven who was eighth at 70-1 in the Wood, and had broken his maiden in a $50,000 claimer is not the typical modus operandi for Pletcher. Yet with Calumet's penchant for chuckling in the face of long odds in major races, the homebred son of Bernardini was entered in the Wood, along with Repole Stable, Phipps Stable, and St. Elias Stable's up-and-coming Dynamic One who was exiting an impressive maiden win for Pletcher at Aqueduct.
"This is something they've done in the past," Pletcher said in crediting the ownership group for wanting to run Bourbonic in the Wood. "They are never afraid to take a shot. Thankfully I wasn't in the owner's boxes (with the Dynamic One connections). I was watching in the film theater and was happy for the winners and sad for the losers."
For jockey Kendrick Carmouche it was a wild journey to the winner's circle both before and during the race.
Carmouche, who was narrowly edged for the Aqueduct winter riding title, expected to ride the undefeated Nicky the Vest in the Wood. Then the New York State-bred suffered bone chips, knocking him off the Kentucky Derby Trail. Carmouche had already given up the mount on Grade 2 Remsen Stakes winner Brooklyn Strong (who was fifth in the Wood) and was happy to land on anyone's back for New York's definitive Kentucky Derby prep.
He was overcome with joy when he, Pletcher, and Bourbonic teamed to beat some staggering odds.
"I'm just thrilled right now with Calumet Farm," Carmouche said. "I won my first grade 1 win with them (on True Timber in the Dec. 5 Grade 1 Cigar Mile Handicap) and we come back to win the Wood Memorial. What other words can we use to explain it? This last six months of my career is what you dream of. The Kentucky Derby gives me chills.
Bourbonic could be Carmouche's first Kentucky Derby mount as the son of the Afleet Alex mare Dancing Afleet is now seventh on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with his 100 points after winning for the third time in six starts while making his stakes debut.
Dynamic One, a son of Union Rags, has 40 points and is 18th with Klaravich Stables' Crowded Trade, who was third Saturday, right behind in 19th with 40 points due to less stakes earnings.
Repole said he would talk to his fellow owners before deciding on Dynamic One's Kentucky Derby status, but he seemed open to heading to Churchill Downs.
"I'm 0-for-6 in the Derby so what's 0-for-7?" he said. "But you don't want to make a decision right after a tough loss. He's green and young and he'll get better. He'll either run in the Kentucky Derby or the (Grade 3) Peter Pan (May 8 at Belmont Park).
Trainer Chad Brown was also non-committal about his two Wood starters, Crowded Trade and Risk Taking, the 2-1 favorite who was seventh.
"He really didn't have anything today," Brown said about Risk Taking. "(Crowded Trade) passed him on the turn and it looked for a moment like (Crowded Trade) might win the race and then he hung a little bit down the lane and ran evenly. Watching his race you'd have to be concerned with how far he'll run. He had dead aim and couldn't make up any ground from the eighth pole home."
Weyburn, who won the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes last month, was fourth and picked up 10 points to give him 60 and rank 11th on the Leaderboard, but trainer Jimmy Jerkens played down the Kentucky Derby in favor of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes as a Triple Crown option.
"I don't think so," Jerkens said about the Run for the Roses.
Weyburn chased Market Maven in the early stages of the nine-furlong Wood through fractions of :50.18 and 1:14.98 but turning for home, they backed up as Jose Ortiz and Dynamic One surged to a half-length lead at the eighth pole. Crowded Trade the 5-2 second choice, seemed the main threat until Bourbonic collared them in a time that eclipsed the previous low water mark of 1:52.93 by Repole's Outwork in the 2016 Wood.
Dynamic One finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Crowded Trade, a son of More Than Ready.
Bourbonic, a half brother to the grade 2 placed Avant Garde, is third foal from Dancing Afleet and third winner and first stakes winner.
She also has a yearling filly by Ransom the Moon.
As the smoke cleared Saturday after a trio of 170-point Kentucky Derby preps, Pletcher, who had no one in the Top 20 a few weeks ago, now finds himself in the enviable position of having four runners who are peaking at the right time and currently have enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby.
"Sometimes the worst thing you can have is a hot hand in January and February," said Pletcher, who also trains Known Agenda, (100 points, 4th) and Sainthood (40, 20th).
Conversely, the best thing you can have is an all-Todd Pletcher exacta in the Wood.