04/01/2010 11:00PM

Small but talented group in Wood


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - One reason trainer Jeremy Noseda chose the New York route to the Triple Crown with Awesome Act was because he thought it would be the path of least resistance. When it came to last month's Grade 3 Gotham, Noseda's assessment was spot on. Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial? Not so much.

Though the race drew only six horses, Saturday's Wood came up deeper than most recent runnings of the Grade 1 race. Consider that in eight of the last 10 years, the first or second choice won the Wood, including four odds-on favorites.

While Fountain of Youth winner Eskendereya will likely assume the role of odds-on choice in Saturday's Wood, there isn't a consensus on who will be second choice. Aqueduct linemaker Eric Donovan installed Fountain of Youth runner-up Jackson Bend at 4-1, but many believe Gotham winner Awesome Act (9-2) could be the second choice. And who could argue with anyone wanting to wager on Schoolyard Dreams (5-1) coming off his nose loss to Odysseus in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 13? The longshots Carnivore and Most Happy Fella round out the field.

"The Gotham and the Wood weren't as good as maybe they were in the '80s and '90s, but we've come here this year and maybe we're looking at the best renewal of the Wood in many years," said Noseda, who brought Awesome Act here from England to win the Gotham by 1 1/4 lengths on March 6.

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When the connections of Eskendereya passed the Florida Derby for the Wood, it made him arguably the best Kentucky Derby prospect to use this race as a final stepping-stone to the Derby since Empire Maker in 2003. Empire Maker defeated Funny Cide in the Wood, only to have the tables turned in Kentucky. Funny Cide is the most recent of 20 Kentucky Derby winners to have prepped in the Wood.

Eskendereya, trained by Todd Pletcher, could make a case to be the Kentucky Derby favorite if he wins the Wood. A son of Giant's Causeway owned by Ahmed Zayat, Eskendereya is 3 for 3 on dirt, including an impressive 8 1/2-length score in the Fountain of Youth on Feb. 20 that still stands as the most visually impressive prep race to date.

"He has so much potential, he just seems like he continually gets better, not only his races but watching him train," Pletcher said. "Physically, he's got all the tools, so I can see continued improvement in him."

Eskendereya shipped to New York from Florida on Wednesday and galloped over the Belmont Park training track Thursday morning. Jonathan Thomas, Pletcher's New York assistant who hadn't seen Eskendereya since last fall, said Eskendereya "has grown in height and is carrying very good muscle tone. He looks fantastic."

Eskendereya has been forwardly placed in his two starts this year and figures to either be on the lead under John Velazquez or track the New York-bred Most Happy Fella, who breaks from the rail under Anna Napravnik.

Jackson Bend, second to Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth, will likely be sitting third under new rider Calvin Borel. Jackson Bend has never finished worse than second in eight starts and will need to keep that streak alive in order to gain enough graded stakes earnings to qualify for the Derby.

"Jackson's strength is he's consistent," said trainer Nick Zito, a three-time Wood winner.

Awesome Act made the transition from turf to dirt in the Gotham, taking advantage of a hot pace to win going away. It was his first start in five months and first in this country. He was off the track for more than a week following the Gotham and had his training interrupted by wet weather. However, he did blow out a quarter-mile in 25 seconds Thursday morning at Belmont.

"We're trying to get him to the Wood in great [shape] without acting like it's the be all and end all with it in the back of our mind that there's an ultimate goal," Noseda said. "There's a possibility with the journey and the change of environment that he could bounce a little bit."

Schoolyard Dreams made three starts this year at Tampa, winning a first-level allowance race in January and finishing second in both the Sam Davis and Tampa Bay Derby. In the derby, Schoolyard Dreams looked like a winner only to have Odysseus come back on him and nip him at the wire.

Trainer Derek Ryan is making a change to jockey Ramon Dominguez, hoping for a little more of a patient ride. Since the Derby, Schoolyard Dreams has continued to train forwardly.

"I'm not afraid of any horse in the country with this horse," Ryan said. "This is a legitimate two-turn horse, two-turn pedigree. He's an improving colt, a May foal. We'll see where he belongs after this race. If you can't compete here, then you don't belong going in the Derby."

The Wood Memorial will go as race 9 on an 11-race card that begins at 1 p.m. Eastern. It is the third leg of an all-stakes pick four - along with the Bay Shore, Excelsior, and Carter - with a guaranteed pool of $500,000. The Wood, along with the Santa Anita Derby, will be televised live on NBC in a one-hour telecast beginning at 5 p.m.

Correction:A previous version of this article misstated the number of times trainer Nick Zito has won the Wood Memorial. It is three times, not twice.