04/03/2014 12:28PM

Steven Crist: Here comes the Wood, after a long, cold, lonely winter

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Michael Amoruso
Samrraat puts his undefeated record on the line in the Wood.

Wood Memorial Day at Aqueduct is the unofficial start of spring and quality racing in New York, with the Wood and the Carter Handicap the first Grade 1 races in the Empire State since the Cigar Mile last Thanksgiving weekend. This year’s unusual 12-race all-dirt card, however, is also a bit of a Groundhog Day – a reminder that there’s still some chill in the air and that save for a four-race stretch of stakes racing, winter racing is not quite over in these parts.

March and April are always the toughest months on the local racing calendar, even more so than January and February, when fields are actually bigger than they are once spring has officially sprung. It’s a time of transition: The winter warriors are looking for a break after a winter of nonstop racing, and the snowbirds aren’t back from Florida yet. There are plenty of days when it’s a struggle to close a nine-race card.

[DRF.com: Steven Crist live-blogs the Wood Memorial Day card at Aqueduct]

The situation grew even tougher this year with the decision to run a 12-race card on Wood Day, even without grass racing. The turf course, hit by repeated winter storms and then by two days of torrential downpours last weekend, won’t be fit for racing until next Wednesday at the earliest. That made Saturday’s card a very rare one where 12 dirt races had to be carded from scratch.

So while last weekend’s 14-race Florida Derby card was a gem of full fields and top-tier conditions – eight stakes races, seven of them graded, with two allowance races and four maiden-specials completing the lineup – Saturday’s Aqueduct card has plenty of filler for a marquee day: Three statebred races, three claimers (two at the $12,500 rung), and a starter allowance.

Then winter turns to spring for a while starting with the 8th race, which begins an all-graded stakes pick-4 with $2.1 million in purses: the $300,000 Grade 3 Bay Shore, the $300,000 Grade 2 Gazelle, the $1 million Wood, and the $500,000 Grade 1 Carter. Squint a little, ignore the pigeons, and it’s almost like a little a shot of Saratoga.

The Bay Shore drew eight, five of whom made their last start somewhere other than Aqueduct. Kobe’s Back, a 5 ¼-length winner of the Grade 2 San Vicente before flunking the distance test in the Rebel, is the 2-1 favorite in a field that includes last-out big-figure winners Favorite Tale and Oliver Zip and the improving Californian The Admiral.

The Gazelle drew just six but features a nice matchup between Sweet Reason, last year’s Spinaway winner and beaten favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and My Miss Sophia, a promising 11-length winner at Gulfstream last time out.

The Wood continues the winter-into-spring theme, drawing some fresh faces to test the principals from all three graded stakes for Derby hopefuls on the winter track – Withers and Gotham winner Samraat; Uncle Sigh, the runner-up in both of those races; and Jerome winner Noble Moon. (By the way, could the Graded Stakes Committee please rethink why the Jerome in January remains a Grade 2 while the subsequent, superior Withers and Gotham are Grade 3’s?)

The intriguing new shooters in the Wood include Sham runner-up Kristo and Private Terms winner Kid Cruz, but love him or doubt him, the race goes through the freakishly talented Social Inclusion.

The Florida-based Pioneerof the Nile colt was a winner of his Feb. 22 debut by 7 ½ lengths, and a 10-length winner of his only other start, when he earned a 111 Beyer Speed figure while setting a Gulfstream track record in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race. The sky is the limit and you root for him if you root for potential greatness, not because he’s a good or bad bet as the 2-1 favorite from post 11 in his stakes debut.

The $500,000 guaranteed pick 4 ends with the Carter, where last year’s Carter runner-up and Met Mile winner Sahara Sky returns from California in a good field that also includes Strapping Groom, Golden Ticket, and Central Banker. It would be nice if the card (and the pick 6) ended there, but there’s a 12th race and it’s a statebred maiden-special with five first-timers – exactly the kind of race that should never be carded as the nightcap and the last leg of the pick 6.

It’s been a particularly harsh winter in these parts. For a few races on Saturday, though, it will finally seem like it’s just about over and that there are better days of racing ahead.