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Gene Kershner’s Post Time: Wood, Santa Anita big pre-Derby tests

Before the Final Four tips off this weekend, thoroughbred horse racing is serving up two major prep races leading up to Kentucky Derby 139.

The Road to the Derby takes the national stage on each coast Saturday (NBC Sports Network, 6 p.m.) when the Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby will be featured in a 90-minute national telecast. The top two finishers of each race should earn sufficient points to qualify for the Run for the Roses on May 4 at Churchill Downs.

We are in the second leg of the Derby Championship Series wherein qualifying points are awarded to the top four finishers on a 100-40-20-10 point basis. Currently the top 14 colts on the leader board have at least 30 points. The Kentucky Derby will start a maximum of 20 colts in the gate, with an also-eligible list of up to four horses.

Wood Memorial

Aqueduct Racetrack will be the scene for the 89th running of the $1 million Wood Memorial. If you’re a hunch player and like to play names when betting the Derby, the Wood’s top two choices start with the letter V. The last Kentucky Derby winner starting with that letter was Venetian Way in 1960, ending a 64-year drought since Vagrant wore the roses in 1896.

The showdown Saturday afternoon between Verrazano (4-5, 50 points) and Vyjack (4-1, 50 points) matches two undefeated horses vying for top honors in Aqueduct’s premier race of its spring meeting. Both colts have already qualified for the Derby by virtue of wins during the first leg in the Championship Series in the Tampa Bay Derby and Gotham, respectively.

Verrazano, trained by Todd Pletcher, is currently the Derby co-favorite (with Florida Derby winner Orb) at 7-1 according to the Wynn Las Vegas, whereas Vyjack sits at 18-1. The More Than Ready colt will be a heavy favorite coming out of an impressive performance at Tampa, a surface that has undone many a colt on the way to Louisville. Owner Bryan Sullivan of Let’s Go Stable said he didn’t even take well to the track that day. “The one thing that Johnny [Velazquez] told us after the Tampa Bay race is that he never handled the track one step out of the gate. So I think when you add all that up, and the fact that he kind of won almost in a hand ride without handling the track, kind of tells you something.”

Pletcher has won two of the last three Wood Memorials, winning last year with Gemologist and with Eskendereya in 2010, while finishing third with Uncle Mo in 2011. “Anytime you have a favorite for a race like the Wood Memorial, you’re hoping everything goes well. Having the early favorite for the Derby is obviously on your mind, but you have to stay focused on doing what you would normally do for horses pointing to races and not get caught up in the big picture too much,” said Pletcher.

Vyjack, owned by Pick Six Racing, will have Dubai World Cup winning jockey Joel Rosario aboard looking to win his fifth straight race. The gelded son of Into Mischief has won all four races at Aqueduct and will have the home track advantage on his side. The matchup with Verrazano has the makings of a natural rivalry as they will meet again in Louisville if they both come out of the race unharmed.

David Wilkenfield, owner of Pick Six Racing, is a horseplayer at heart, once cashing a solo $3.3 million Pick Six ticket, hence the name of his stable. He feels that the pace may favor Verrazano, but feels his horse is up to any challenge. “It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a lot of pace in the race, so that probably favors Verrazano, and we’ll just have to see how the race unfolds; and if Vyjack has shown multi-dimensions in terms of running style, so I’ll leave that up to Joel to determine what the best tactic is once the race unfolds, and hopefully it’ll be an honest race track,” said Wilkenfield.

While it looks to be a two-horse race on paper, the chance that an upstart colt sneaks into the fold is always a possibility with young 3-year-olds. One such colt that has been moving forward is Mr. Palmer (12-1), trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Another to watch is the Street Sense colt Elnaawi (12-1), who finished third behind Vyjack in the Gotham after being bumped at the start. His training pattern is sharp and Kiaran McLaughlin will have him ready for a potential upset.

Santa Anita Derby

Shifting coasts to the Los Angeles area, the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (7 p.m. post) will match winners of the Robert B. Lewis (Flashback), Southwest Stakes (Super Ninety Nine) and Sham Stakes (Goldencents). Last year’s Santa Anita Derby produced its first Kentucky Derby champion in 23 years in I’ll Have Another.

The gelding Hear the Ghost, winner of the San Felipe Stakes, was scratched late Thursday afternoon after his owner Ted Aroney of Halo Farms reported his Friday morning workout was off. The scratch opens the door for Bob Baffert and his stable of challengers.

Baffert has trained a record six winners in the Santa Anita Derby and will send three starters to the gate, most notably the favorite, Flashback. Garrett Gomez will ride the son of Tapit, a flashy gray beaten half a length in the San Felipe after winning the Lewis in a six-length rout. He also sends out Super Ninety Nine (6-1, 10 points) who will be looking to bounce back from an abysmal performance in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and prove he’s not just an off-track star based on his win in the slop in the Southwest. Martin Garcia will be in the irons on Super Ninety Nine for Baffert.

A horse I think has a big chance to move forward at a price is Tiz a Minister (6-1, 10 points), third in the San Felipe, but was closing strong after being four wide in the lane. He sports a sharp six-furlong workout on March 28 and will need to finish in the top two for a chance at the Derby.

Gene Kershner a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @Equispace.