04/09/2017 9:47AM

Watchmaker: Can Irish War Cry fire big back to back?

Barbara D. Livingston
Irish War Cry earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure for Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

It says a lot about Saturday's three major Kentucky Derby preps that the strongest turned out to be the one won by a horse coming off a dismal 21 3/4-length loss as the even-money favorite. But I guess that is entirely appropriate in a Derby prep season that has featured, among other things, the unanimous 2-year-old male champion (Classic Empire) turn in a total clunker in his 3-year-old bow and then have episodes of refusing to train, and the best 3-year-old seen by far this year (Mastery) knocked out by an injury sustained literally seconds after his dazzling 2017 debut.

Yeah, it’s been that kind of year.

Getting back to Saturday, the horse referenced above is, of course, Irish War Cry. He did a 180 from a victory in the Holy Bull in his first start this year that was strong even if it was achieved with the benefit of an easy, uncontested lead, to flopping as much as a horse can in the subsequent Fountain of Youth, going from a 101 Beyer Figure to a 63.

Well, Irish War Cry did another 180 in Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial, scoring as decisively as he did in the Holy Bull and getting back up again to a 101 Beyer. That said, Irish War Cry’s Wood Memorial was in other ways a significantly better performance than his Holy Bull.

Although Irish War Cry encountered no adversity Saturday, he got no base on balls, either. He settled nicely in the initial stages before moving up soon after entering the backstretch to press the pace set by Battalion Runner. Battalion Runner might be a very good horse; his profile going into the Wood was very similar to the one Always Dreaming carried into a blowout victory in last week’s Florida Derby, a performance that, after Saturday’s events, makes him the current Kentucky Derby favorite. And the pace Battalion Runner set was strong, especially considering Aqueduct’s main track was by no means yielding fast fractions and final times Saturday, even if it was speed-favoring.

So Irish War Cry proved in the Wood that he doesn’t need an easy, favorable trip to fire big at this level. Now all he has to do is show he can fire big at this level in back-to-back starts.

The most disappointing Derby prep Saturday – not for the winning connections or the clairvoyants who somehow bet him, but for just about everyone else – was the Blue Grass at Keeneland.

On paper, the Blue Grass looked like the strongest and deepest Kentucky Derby prep of the year. Boy, did it fool us. Practical Joke, winner of the Champagne and Hopeful, McCraken, who entered the day the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, J Boys Echo, winner of the quickly run Gotham, and Tapwrit, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, all lost to Irap, who entered the Blue Grass a maiden after seven starts.

In fairness, Irap wasn’t a hopeless horse. He did finish second to Mastery in the Los Alamitos Futurity, albeit beaten more than seven lengths in a five-horse field, and he was second in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. But he was also the same Irap who lost as the favorite in the Mine That Bird Derby (the one run at Sunland), and who finished a distant fourth in the Sunland Derby. He was a maiden, for crying out loud. And it’s not like he suddenly improved explosively. Irap’s hard-fought Blue Grass decision translated to a very mediocre Beyer of 93.

As for the highly regarded group in the Blue Grass who finished behind the maiden, runner-up Practical Joke tried hard, but the fact that he couldn’t get by in a slowly run race only reinforced my belief that he’s really not a true route horse right now. And if you were a McCraken fan going into the Blue Grass, you should probably stay one, because he had a license to need the race after missing a scheduled start in the Tampa Bay Derby, and the lack of pace didn’t help his closing style. Still, his lack of punch late was cause for pause, and his third-place finish didn’t inspire me.

J Boys Echo and Tapwrit, who finished fourth and fifth, were also pace-disadvantaged, but Tapwrit, in particular, did very little running and added credence to the belief he beat a particularly soft field in Tampa.

If the Blue Grass Beyer of 93 was mediocre, what can you say about the Santa Anita Derby, won by Gormley with a Beyer of only 88

After a quick early pace, the Santa Anita Derby deteriorated into an outright staggerfest in the late stages. On the plus side, Gormley showed the ability to succeed from off the pace, but a final three eighths in 40.24 seconds gave him all day to get there. This race was contracting late like an accordion to the point that Iliad, who is no cinch to want two turns at this point in his career, actually gained a bit of ground to be beaten two lengths for all the money.

If there were one horse I would be inclined to make an excuse for in the Santa Anita Derby, it would be Battle of Midway. I don’t get why Battle of Midway was battling on the early lead, especially after he settled so well off the pace winning an allowance route last month. But at least Battle of Midway ran hard every step of the way.

Saturday notes:
In stark contrast to the nonsense that occurred last week, Aqueduct and Keeneland did not have one instance of overlapping races Saturday. And while I didn’t see every race from Santa Anita, there were no overlapping races from the Santa Anita races I saw, either, once they joined in. Of course, that’s the way it should be, and it’s a sad commentary that you feel compelled to compliment tracks when they employ what should be standard policy. But that’s the way it is.

** It would be difficult to throw too many compliments in the direction of Paradise Woods after her freakish romp in the Santa Anita Oaks. If you want to nitpick, she did get away with an easy early lead. But still, Paradise Woods drowned her field by almost 12 lengths, rendering questionable strategy on the part of runner-up Abel Tasman moot, and earning a 107 Beyer that was a staggering 19 points higher than the Santa Anita Derby figure.

** It’s also time to show Miss Sky Warrior some love. The knock on her has been she’s beaten weak opposition in slow times, and it has been a justified criticism. But all Miss Sky Warrior does is win, and win she did for the fifth time in six starts with a 13-length blowout in Aqueduct’s Gazelle, earning a 94 Beyer that was easily her best to date.

** Sailor’s Valentine is an exponentially more valuable filly today in the wake of her 22-1 upset in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland. I’m sure it doesn’t matter to her connections that she only had to run fast enough for a 77 Beyer to get that Grade 1.