Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Wood Memorial Winners

Legends
Vino Rosso, with John Velazquez in the irons, won the 2018 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. (Eclipse Sportswire)

New York’s road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve concludes this Saturday. Aqueduct will host the $750,000, Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes at 1 ⅛ miles on the dirt. The winner will receive 100 qualifying points toward the Derby, while the runner-up will receive 40, the third-place finisher 20, and the fourth-place runner 10.

The race was first held in 1925, and was named in memory of Eugene Wood, the first president of old Jamaica Racetrack. The race was held at Jamaica until that track’s closure in 1959; it has been held at Aqueduct ever since. It was contested at a mile and 70 yards from its inauguration until 1939, then was extended to 1 1/16 miles in 1940, and extended to its current distance in 1952. The race was a Grade 1 from 1973 to 1994, and again from 2002 to 2016. There was no race in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eleven Wood Memorial winners have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, most recently Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

Let’s take a look back at some of the best Wood Memorial winners.


BOLD RULER (1957)

CAREER RECORD: 33 starts, 23 wins, 4 seconds, 2 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $764,204

Bold Ruler wins the 1957 Preakness Stakes. (Baltimore Sunpapers Photo/BloodHorse)

Bold Ruler was part of the iconic 3-year-old crop of 1957 that included fellow Hall of Famers Round Table and Gallant Man. He came into his 3-year-old campaign as a mixed bag. He won the prestigious Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park in September, but followed that performance with dull showings in both the Garden State Stakes and he Remsen Stakes.

He was sent to Florida to begin his 3-year-old season and started off strong. He won two stakes races down there, including the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah Park, while finishing second in two more behind top Kentucky Derby contender General Duke. Off those performances, Bold Ruler was the 1-2 favorite in his final Derby prep, the Wood Memorial.

Jamaica drew 42,122 fans on the third Saturday in April to watch the Wood Memorial, and they saw a thriller. Eddie Arcaro sent Bold Ruler to his usual spot on the early lead and established control while setting moderate fractions. As the field neared the half-mile pole, Johnny Choquette moved Gallant Man to engage with the leader, and those two remained locked in battle down the stretch. In an exciting stretch duel, Bold Ruler won by a nose and set a new track and stakes record of 1:48 ⅘. The stakes mark stood for almost 20 years.

Two weeks later, Bold Ruler went off as the 6-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby. He failed to live up to his odds, finishing a nonthreatening fourth. He bounced back with a win in the Preakness Stakes and was named champion 3-year-old at season’s end.

While he enjoyed great success on the racetrack, Bold Ruler is equally known for his accomplishments as a stallion. He was the leading sire eight times, and went on to be a prolific sire of sires as well. His greatest son is Secretariat, one of 11 year-end champions sired by Bold Ruler.


DAMASCUS (1967)

CAREER RECORD: 32 starts, 21 wins, 7 seconds, 3 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,176,781

Damascus was a solid 7-10 favorite in the 1967 Wood Memorial. He was a late-blooming 2-year-old, having made his career debut on Sept. 28 of his freshman season. He concluded that campaign with a win in the Remsen Stakes. In his second start as a 3-year-old, he prevailed in the Bay Shore Stakes by 2 ½ lengths, but he was then defeated by Dr. Fager in a game battle in the Gotham Stakes.

Without Dr. Fager in the Wood Memorial, Damascus cruised to an easy victory. Bill Shoemaker rated him off the pace while a pair of well-regarded colts named Brunch and Gala Performance set fast fractions. Damascus went after the leaders as they rounded the turn and, despite some mild resistance from Gala Performance, he pulled clear in the stretch for a six-length win, stopping the clock in 1:49 ⅗.

Two weeks later, Damascus was the consensus 1.70-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby but he finished third behind Proud Clarion. He was virtually flawless the rest of the year, winning the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes handily. After the Triple Crown, Damascus won seven of nine races, with only two nose defeats preventing him from a perfect back half of the year. The headliners were a 22-length win in the Travers Stakes and a 10-length win over Dr. Fager and Buckpasser in the Woodward Stakes. For his accomplishments, Damascus was named the 1967 Horse of the Year.


FOOLISH PLEASURE (1975)

CAREER RECORD: 26 starts, 16 wins, 4 seconds, 3 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,216,705

Like Bold Ruler and Damascus before him, Foolish Pleasure went into the Wood Memorial as a highly-regarded colt looking for redemption. He was the champion 2-year-old male of 1974 following a perfect 7-for-7 season and won his first two races as a 3-year-old handily. In the Florida Derby, he suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of Prince Thou Art, ruining his perfect record.

Foolish Pleasure pressed on to the Wood Memorial but caught a rough break when he drew the extreme outside post position in a 15-horse field. With a short run into the first turn, Foolish Pleasure was up against it right from the start.

Jockey Jacinto Vasquez had little choice but to send his mount aggressively, and that’s what he did, urging on Foolish Pleasure from the start to try to get to the lead and save as much ground as possible. Despite Vasquez’s best efforts, Foolish Pleasure was caught three wide around the first turn. Heading up the backstretch he was third, rating off the leaders. As the field turned for home, pace-setting Bombay Duck was still in front, and it looked like the wide trip might mean defeat for Foolish Pleasure. In the last eighth, Bombay Duck held the lead but Vasquez was asking Foolish Pleasure for everything he had – and he delivered, winning by a head.

Foolish Pleasure delivered once again as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, becoming the first horse to win the Wood Memorial and the Kentucky Derby since Triple Crown winner Assault in 1946. Although Foolish Pleasure finished second in both the Preakness and the Belmont, he picked up a few more stakes wins through the rest of his career, including a nose victory over Forego in the 1976 Suburban Handicap.


BOLD FORBES (1976)

CAREER RECORD: 18 starts, 13 wins, 1 second, 4 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $546,536

A speedball from the Laz Barrera barn, Bold Forbes was very highly regarded for the 1976 Wood Memorial. As a 2-year-old, he won his first seven starts, never trailing in any of them. That streak included an eight-length victory in the Saratoga Special Stakes where he was barely asked to run. He went on the shelf after that race and, although he struggled in his first three starts off the layoff, he bounced back with front-running scores in the San Jacinto Stakes at Santa Anita Park and the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct. Off those wins, he was a heavy 2-5 favorite in the Wood Memorial.

Breaking from post-position five, jockey Angel Cordero Jr. was not super-aggressive with his mount at the start. He let Bold Forbes relax in the early stages, rating him just off the leaders before moving to the front at the opening quarter. By the time they hit the half-mile point, Bold Forbes was on the rail and in front by three lengths. Although he encountered some challenges at the top of the stretch, he easily dismissed them and drew away to a 4 ¾-length win.

Bold Forbes certainly would have been the heavy favorite in the Kentucky Derby, if not for the imposing presence of Honest Pleasure. That colt was champion 2-year-old the year before off four graded stakes wins, and he won three Grade 1 races as a 3-year-old before the Derby. Honest Pleasure scared off most 3-year-olds, as only eight horses dared to challenge him on the first Saturday in May. He went off as the 2-5 favorite while Bold Forbes was the 3-1 second choice.

In the Derby, Cordero sent Bold Forbes to the front, opening up five lengths in the first half-mile. Honest Pleasure, also a committed front-runner, couldn’t keep up early and was a distant second in the early stages. Although he drew alongside Bold Forbes in the stretch he could not get by, and Bold Forbes held on for a one-length, gate-to-wire upset.

Bold Forbes was third in the Preakness and then won the Belmont in dramatic fashion. Cordero nursed his speed throughout the 1 ½-mile race, opening up a six-length advantage up the backstretch. Turning for home, Bold Forbes was spent, but he still had a huge jump on the others and Cordero began to encourage him. Although McKenzie Bridge was flying at the end, Cordero had managed the race perfectly, and Bold Forbes held on to win by a neck.


SEATTLE SLEW (1977)

CAREER RECORD: 17 starts, 14 wins, 2 seconds, 0 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $1,208,726

Seattle Slew had a flawless résumé entering the 1977 Wood Memorial. An awkward-looking sort as a yearling, he was purchased for just $17,500 at the 1975 Fasig-Tipton yearling sale. From the start, that price looked like a bargain. He won his three starts as a 2-year-old, including the Champagne Stakes, by a combined margin of 18 ¼ lengths while never trailing in any of them. He was named champion 2-year-old male despite a relatively light season.

Seattle Slew’s first two starts as a 2-year-old were similarly impressive. He set a track record for seven furlongs in his season debut at Hialeah Park and then won the Flamingo Stakes at that track by four lengths in his two-turn debut. For his final Derby prep, he was sent to the Wood Memorial, where he was the 1-10 favorite.

In contrast to the Flamingo where he set very fast fractions early on, Seattle Slew got away with a modest tempo in the Wood. He got the opening quarter-mile in 23 ⅘ seconds, followed by a half-mile in 47 ⅘ seconds. From there he drew off, crossing the finish line 3 ¼ lengths in front. He was in front by six lengths at one point but runner-up Sanhedrin made up some ground late to cut the margin.

There was some mild doubt as to how Seattle Slew would handle 1 ¼ miles in the Kentucky Derby, but it didn’t stop the betting public from making him the 1-2 favorite. He battled on the lead through fast fractions, but drew off in the stretch and won by 1 ¾ lengths. He followed it up with wins in the Preakness and the Belmont to become the first undefeated Triple Crown winner. He was also the third consecutive Wood Memorial winner to win the Kentucky Derby.


PLEASANT COLONY (1981)

CAREER RECORD: 14 starts, 6 wins, 3 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $965,383

Pleasant Colony at the finish of the Kentucky Derby
Pleasant Colony at the finish of the Kentucky Derby (Milt Toby/BloodHorse photo)

The 1981 Wood Memorial looked like a coronation for Cure the Blues. He was coming off a second-place finish in the Gotham Stakes but had won six races in a row prior to that race. The speedy LeRoy Jolley trainee was the huge 1-5 favorite in the field of six and looked like the certain favorite for the Kentucky Derby two weeks later.

Not many people paid attention to Pleasant Colony. He had won just one race entering the Wood Memorial – a maiden special weight race at the Meadowlands in September 1980. In his 3-year-old debut, he lost the Fountain of Youth by a nose and then was a well-beaten fifth in the Florida Derby. After that race, he was transferred to the barn of trainer John Campo, who gave Jeff Fell the Wood Memorial mount on Pleasant Colony. He was considered a 12.70-1 outsider.

Cure the Blues went to the early lead but was immediately pressed to his outside by second favorite Noble Nashua. The two zipped through fast fractions, setting the opening quarter-mile in 22 ⅘ seconds and the half-mile in 45 ⅘ seconds. Meanwhile, Fell kept Pleasant Colony in third well off the dueling leaders.

As the field rounded the final turn, Noble Nashua began to give way and Cure the Blues started to open up. He had the lead turning for home, but Pleasant Colony was rolling on the outside. Cure the Blues, exhausted from that blazing early pace, stopped badly and Pleasant Colony easily went by and won by three lengths. Cure the Blues ended up third, eight lengths behind the upset winner.

At the Derby, Pleasant Colony was the 7-2 second choice. Fell had taken off to ride favored Proud Appeal so Jorge Velasquez took the mount on the Wood winner in his place. Just like in the Wood, the pace was electric. A crush of speedballs blazed the first quarter in 21 ⅘ seconds, which remains the fastest opening quarter in Derby history. The half-mile was a similarly fast 45 ⅕ seconds. All the speed horses were burned out by the final turn, and Pleasant Colony, who was 17th in the early stages, once again took advantage of a pace meltdown. He came from behind and held off the rally of Woodchopper for a half-length Derby win. That marked the fifth time in seven years the Derby winner had competed in the Wood Memorial (in addition to the four winners listed above, the filly Genuine Risk was third in the 1980 Wood prior to her Derby win).

Two weeks later, Pleasant Colony won the Preakness by a length, but he could do no better than third in his try for the Triple Crown in the Belmont.


SLEW O’GOLD (1983)

CAREER RECORD: 21 starts, 12 wins, 5 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $3,533,534

Six years after Seattle Slew won the Wood Memorial, one of his greatest sons, Slew o’Gold, did the same.

While Slew o’Gold was the favorite in the field of seven, he was not held in as high esteem as his father. He did not have a stakes win to his credit entering the Wood, having placed in two stakes at Tampa Bay Downs earlier in the season. Ten days before the race, he attracted some attention with an impressive 7 ¾-length win in an allowance race at Aqueduct.

That year’s Wood Memorial drew an overflow field of 19. As a result, the race was split into two divisions, with Slew o’Gold going in what was considered the tougher division of the two. With regular jockey Angel Cordero Jr. on suspension, Eddie Maple picked up the mount.

The Wood Memorial proved to be Slew o’Gold’s breakthrough race. He rated just off the pace and took the lead as the field entered the stretch. He dueled with another highly-regarded 3-year-old, Parfaitement, in the stretch and got up to win by a neck. That win saved the day for the Sidney Watters stable. Slew o’Gold’s stablemate Slewpy was a nonthreatening seventh in the other division, so Slew o’Gold’s win ensured Watters of a Kentucky Derby horse.

Although Slew o’Gold was fourth in the Derby, he blossomed later in his 3-year-old season. He finished second in the Belmont and the Travers, but then won the Woodward and the Jockey Club Gold Cup against older horses. He almost pulled off a sweep of New York’s major older horse races, but lost the Marlboro Cup by a neck to Highland Blade. The next year, Slew o’Gold completed the triple.


EASY GOER (1989)

CAREER RECORD: 20 starts, 14 wins, 5 seconds, 1 third

CAREER EARNINGS: $4,873,770

Easy Goer was destined for greatness from birth. He was sired by Alydar out of the champion mare Relaxing. Racing in the iconic black and red silks of Ogden Phipps under the expert care of trainer Shug McGaughey, he was voted the champion 2-year-old male of 1988 after impressive wins in the Cowdin and the Champagne. He was second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to conclude his season but nevertheless loomed large as a major Kentucky Derby threat.

Easy Goer won the Swale Stakes impressively in his 3-year-old debut. Next out, he ignited the imagination of racing fans by winning the Gotham in a 13-length romp. In doing so, he went a mile in 1:32 ⅖, breaking Secretariat’s stakes record by a full second and narrowly missing Dr. Fager’s world record time.

Two weeks later, Easy Goer had his final Derby tune-up in the Wood Memorial. Five horses dared to take him on but none was given much of a chance. He was the 1-10 favorite, while no one else in the field was less than 10-1.

The race went exactly according to plan. Pat Day rated Easy Goer off pace-setting Diamond Donnie, ratcheting up the pressure more as the race went on. As the horses neared the far turn, Easy Goer drew alongside the leader. He took charge with minimal urging in the stretch to win by three lengths.

On the first Saturday in May, Easy Goer, coupled with Awe Inspiring in the betting, was the 4-5 favorite. He was upset that day by up-and-coming Californian Sunday Silence, who defeated Easy Goer by 2 ½ lengths. In the Preakness, Easy Goer was an even bigger favorite at 3-5 oddds. In one of the most dramatic races in modern history, Easy Goer and Sunday Silence engaged in stretch-long duel, but Sunday SIlence got the upper hand and won the Preakness by a nose.

Easy Goer turned the tables in a dramatic way in the Belmont. He defeated Sunday Silence by eight lengths in 2:26, running the second-fastest Belmont ever. Easy Goer won four more races in a row after the Belmont, dominating the New York circuit with open-length scores in the Whitney, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. He then met Sunday Silence one more time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, and Sunday Silence held him off by a neck to clinch Horse of the Year.


DEVIL HIS DUE (1992)

CAREER RECORD: 41 starts, 11 wins, 12 seconds, 3 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $3,920,405

Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens was known as the “Giant Killer” for his propensity to spring upsets in major races. In the 1992 Wood Memorial, however, he was the one with a giant.

Devil His Due was coming off a dramatic performance in the Gotham, in which he finished in a dead-heat for first with future Hall of Famer Lure after a long stretch duel. Lure went to Keeneland for his next start but Devil His Due still had plenty of competition in the Wood Memorial. He faced 11 horses and went off as the 2.80-1 second choice behind multiple Grade 1-placed Snappy Landing.

Mike Smith was patient early on with Devil His Due, rating him off Goldwater, who was ridden aggressively to get to the lead from the outside post. When the pacesetter backed up, Devil His Due pounced and took firm control in the last eighth of a mile. Although West By West surged, Devil His Due had enough left for a one-length victory.

Jerkens was on the fence about whether or not to press on to the Derby with Devil His Due, but decided to make the trip. His charge briefly pressed the pace but then faltered and finished 12th. Devil His Due more than redeemed himself as an older horse. As a 4-year-old in 1993, he won four graded stakes races, including three Grade 1s. In 1994, he picked up three more graded stakes wins and won the prestigious Suburban Handicap for the second straight year.


VINO ROSSO (2018)

CAREER RECORD: 15 starts, 6 wins, 1 second, 3 thirds

CAREER EARNINGS: $4,803,125

Vincent Viola, Mike Repole and John Velazquez. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Appropriately for a horse with his name, Vino Rosso got better as he got older. He won his first graded stakes in the 2018 Wood Memorial, which was the second triumph in this race for his owner Mike Repole of Repole Stable, who owned him in partnership with Vincent Viola's St. Elias Stable.

Breaking from the outside post in a nine-horse field, Vino Rosso was rated in sixth early behind free-wheeling leader Old Time Revival, who set blazing fractions. Meanwhile, John Velazquez had Vino Rosso in the two-path in a comfortable spot. As the field rounded the final turn, Old Time Revival tired and Vino Rosso went after the leader while moving wide. Favored Enticed made a similar move and the two dueled together in the stretch. In the last eighth, Vino Rosso pulled clear to win by three lengths.

Although he did not win a stakes for the rest of his 3-year-old season, Vino Rosso blossomed as a 4-year-old. He won three stakes races, including the Gold Cup at Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He became the first Wood Memorial winner to go on to Breeders’ Cup Classic glory.

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