04/03/2017 12:26PM

Pletcher, Battalion Runner bucking recent history in attempt at Wood-Kentucky Derby double

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Barbara D. Livingston
Battalion Runner will try to become the first Wood Memorial horse to finish in the top three in the Kentucky Derby since 2003.

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – The Wood Memorial hasn’t produced a top-three finisher in the Kentucky Derby since 2003. Over the last 13 years, the Wood has produced 29 starters in the Derby – not to mention four who scratched after being entered – with only a quartet of horses managing to finish as high as fourth.

Perhaps nobody embodies this frustrating statistic more than trainer Todd Pletcher, who will have the likely favorite in Battalion Runner as well as longshot Bonus Points for Saturday’s Grade 2, $750,000 Wood at Aqueduct. From 2010-16, Pletcher won the Wood four times. Three of those horses finished 14th or worse in the Kentucky Derby, while Eskendereya, a 9 3/4-length Wood winner in 2010, didn’t make the race.

“I think it’s a matter of circumstances really,” Pletcher said recently in his office at the Palm Beach Downs training center in south Florida. “I don’t look at it as the curse of the Wood Memorial or anything like that.”

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In 2010, Eskendereya’s emphatic Wood victory came after an equally impressive victory in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park six weeks earlier. But a tendon issue was diagnosed in between the Wood and the Derby, and Eskendereya never raced again.

In 2011, the Pletcher-trained Uncle Mo finished third as the 1-9 favorite in the Wood. An internal issue was later diagnosed that forced Uncle Mo to scratch from the Kentucky Derby. Toby’s Corner, the winner of that year’s Wood, did not run in the Derby due to lameness.

In 2012, Gemologist won the Wood by a neck over Alpha, making him 5 for 5 entering the Kentucky Derby. He finished 16th, 30 lengths behind I’ll Have Another.

“Gemologist was probably the most disappointing of all of them,” Pletcher said. “That horse trained so well after the Wood, went into Churchill looking fantastic. He was off the bridle at the three-quarter pole.”

Gemologist would race only once more, finishing last of six in the Grade 1 Haskell.

In 2013, Verrazano won the Wood Memorial by three-quarters of a length over Normandy Invasion, making him unbeaten in four starts, all at age 3. Verrazano caught a sloppy track in the Kentucky Derby and finished 14th, 15 3/4 lengths behind Orb.

“If I could have a do-over with him, I wouldn’t have run him as many times leading up to the Wood,” Pletcher said. “I would have skipped one of those races, either the allowance or Tampa Derby. He maybe peaked too soon. The other thing is we got to Churchill, it was sloppy, and he didn’t handle the track. It might not have mattered what we did for the Derby.”

Verrazano did rebound to win the Pegasus and Haskell, each by more than nine lengths, at Monmouth.

In 2014, Harpoon ran ninth for Pletcher in the Wood and ultimately dropped into the claiming ranks. In 2015, Daredevil finished fourth as the 2-1 favorite in the Wood and never raced again.

Last year, Outwork won the Wood by a neck over the maiden Trojan Nation. He finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby and was later found to have a suspensory injury that prompted his retirement.

Battalion Runner, a son of 1996 Wood Memorial winner Unbridled’s Song, will make his stakes debut in the Wood. He debuted last June at Belmont, finishing second after being impeded at the break. He came out of the race with some minor issues and was given ample time to recover.

“We took the conservative approach with a horse we thought had some talent and by a sire line that, over the years, we’ve learned you got to be a little patient with,” Pletcher said.

Arrogate, last year’s 3-year-old champion male who didn’t debut until after the Triple Crown, is by Unbridled’s Song.

Battalion Runner returned in a seven-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 31, broke running, and carried his speed to an 8 3/4-length victory over Lookin for Eight, a next-out winner. Battalion Runner stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in allowance company Feb. 3, fending off a challenge from Beasley to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

“He was a beautiful yearling, a beautiful 2-year-old, but he has made that physical improvement and has developed as we’ve gotten into his 3-year-old season,” Pletcher said. “He’s certainly a big, strong-enough horse to handle the campaign.”

Battalion Runner was purchased as a yearling for $700,000 by Vinnie Viola’s St. Elias Stable. Viola, along with his wife, Teresa, and several partners, own Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming.

Under the points system used by Churchill Downs to determine the Kentucky Derby field, it likely will take a first- or second-place finish in the Wood by Battalion Runner to get into the Derby.

If that happens, then he’ll likely have 19 rivals and 14 years of history to try to beat.