08/29/2007 11:00PM

Timing of Woodward works after all


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It still feels weird to talk about the Woodward being run at Saratoga, as it will be for the second year Saturday after a 38-year run at Belmont Park from 1968 through 2005. The move made sense on a couple of counts, but some of its historic appeal has been lost in the relocation.

The Woodward was moved in part to try to anchor a stronger closing weekend at Saratoga, but the main reason was to provide an extra week of spacing before the Jockey Club Gold Cup. From 2003 through 2005, three straight Woodward winners (Mineshaft, Ghostzapper, and Saint Liam) were named Horse of the Year, but none of them ran in both the Gold Cup and the Breeders' Classic. Mineshaft was injured and retired after the Gold Cup while Ghostzapper and Saint Liam both went straight from the Woodward to the Classic off 49-day layoffs.

This year, with 56 days between the Woodward and Classic, maybe a horse will try all three, though these days that's probably too much to hope for. Last year, only one horse even ran in both the Woodward and Gold Cup, and you'd have to think a long time to name him: Andromeda's hero, fifth in the Woodward and then third in a four-horse Gold Cup.

That's a far cry from the days when the Woodward winner usually went straight to the Gold Cup, even when it was just three weeks later, to try to lock up a championship. The list of horses who won the two races in the same year is quite a roll of honor: Sword Dancer (1959), Kelso (1961-63), Roman Brother (1965), Buckpasser (1966), Damascus (1967), Arts and Letters (1969), Prove Out (1973), Forego (1974), Affirmed (1979), Slew o'Gold (1983-84), Easy Goer (1989), and Cigar (1995).

One of things that's been lost with moving the Woodward to Saratoga is the participation of 3-year-olds. In addition to Sword Dancer, Damascus, Buckpasser, Arts and Letters, Slew o'Gold, and Easy Goer from the list of Woodward-Gold cup winners above, Traffic Judge (1955), Personality (1970), West Coast Scout (1971), Pleasant Colony (1981), Polish Navy (1987), and Holy Bull (1994) all won the Woodward as 3-year-olds. Most of those dozen also ran in the Travers, which is now just a week before the Woodward.

The other thing that's been lost is the uniqueness of the Woodward as a one-turn nine-furlong race due to Belmont's configuration. Once it was shortened from 10 to 9 furlongs in 1981, the Woodward often became a showcase for top-class milers stretching their speed, like Track Barron (1985), Precisionist (1986), In Excess (1991), and Bertrando (1993).

On the other hand, the new timing and venue for the Woodward has some positives as well. Trainers like the five-week spacing between the Whitney on opening weekend and the Woodward on closing weekend. Saturday's renewal drew the 1-2-3-6-8-10 finishers from the Whitney, with Met Mile winner Corinthian and Suburban winner Political Force joining that crew. With the exception of the absent 3-year-olds (and only Any Given Saturday was even nominated), that's as good a field as could possibly have been assembled.

Six of the nation's top 10 older males, as ranked on the current Watchmaker Watch, are in the Woodward party - Lawyer Ron (4), Magna Graduate (5), Political Force (7), Corinthian (8), Wanderin Boy (9), and Diamond Stripes (10) - and there was no way to get the other four: Invasor (1) and Flashy Bull (6) are retired, Discreet Cat (2) hasn't raced since March, and Lava Man (3) just ran in the Pacific Classic. The only two Woodward runners not in that top 10, Brass Hat and Sun King, could both win the race on their best day.

Lawyer Ron will be favored off his track-record 4 3/4-length blowout victory in the Whitney despite running third to Corinthian and Political Force in the Met Mile. A victory here on top of his Oaklawn Handicap and Whitney scores would just about wrap up an older-horse championship, and set him up for a Horse of the Year showdown with the top 3-year-olds in the Classic. It will be interesting to see just how strongly he's bet in this Woodward. His Whitney performance in isolation makes him look like an odds-on choice, but skeptics will want to see him deliver that powerful performance a second time and are wary of the cold streak surrounding trainer Todd Pletcher's barn at Saratoga the last three weeks.

In the Breeders' Cup era, the Whitney, Woodward, and Gold Cup may no longer be connected the way they once were, but the three races remain gems of their own and pretty good predictors of what to expect in October: Last year, they provided the trifecta on Breeders' Cup Day when Invasor (Whitney), Bernardini (Gold Cup), and Premium Tap (Woodward) ran 1-2-3 in the Classic.