03/21/2011 1:51PM

Wood Memorial: Norman Asbjornson, Toby’s Corner could take on Uncle Mo at Aqueduct

Barbara D. Livingston
Gotham runner-up Norman Asbjornson is now pointing for the Wood.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Two days after the March 5 Gotham Stakes, the connections of the runner-up, Norman Asbjornson, and third-place finisher, Toby’s Corner, indicated they would look more at the Illinois Derby than the Wood Memorial for their horses’ next starts.

Two weeks later, there appears to be a change of heart.

Undeterred by the presence of undefeated champion Uncle Mo in the race, trainer Chris Grove on Monday said that his owners want to run Norman Asbjornson in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9, while Graham Motion, the trainer of Toby’s Corner, said his horse is now 50-50 for the race.

Also on Monday, trainer Bob Baffert said Jaycito, runner-up to Premier Pegasus in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 12 and a Grade 1 winner at 2, is probable for the Wood. Isn’t He Perfect, a winner of a starter allowance Sunday at Aqueduct, also is pointing to the Wood, run at 1 1/8 miles over Aqueduct’s main track.

With last week’s announcement that the purse of the Wood has been raised to $1 million from $750,000, that means second-money ($200,000) is worth more than winning the $250,000 Illinois Derby, which is run the same day at Hawthorne. That, and the fact the ship to New York from Maryland is much easier, makes the Wood attractive to Grove and Motion.

“The owners wanted to run in the Wood, I didn’t fight them on it,” said Grove, who trains Norman Asbjornson for owners/breeders Thomas McClay and Harry Nye. “Going out to Illinois was going to be a different experience. Shipping up to run in the Wood seemed like the most logical thing. He handled the trip last time.”

Norman Asbjornson ran a credible second to Stay Thirsty in the Gotham. Norman Asbjornson was making his first start in seven weeks, after being scratched from the Feb. 5 Whirlaway after acting up in the gate.

In the Gotham, Norman Asbjornson stalked The Fed Eased through modest fractions and was overtaken by Stay Thirsty inside the eighth pole. At the sixteenth pole, Stay Thirsty came over on Norman Asbjornson, prompting jockey Julien Pimentel to steady his horse. Pimentel claimed foul against Ramon Dominguez and Stay Thirsty, but the claim was disallowed.

“Yeah, he did interfere with us, but it wasn’t like we were fighting head and head with him,” Grove said. “It didn’t cost us the win. I thought the stewards made the right decision. With that said, he gave Stay Thirsty everything Stay Thirsty wanted coming off a four-month layoff.”

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While Stay Thirsty is not coming back for the Wood, his more heralded stablemate Uncle Mo will be in the starting gate.

“I guess we’re too dumb to be afraid of him,” Grove joked. “He turned the gas on the other day, but there might still be a little question whether he wants to go a mile and an eighth. Nobody even pushed him. I thought it was kind of a weird race.

“We’re on two different planes,” Grove added. “That horse is trying to win the Derby, I’m trying to get to the Preakness.”

Meanwhile, Motion said Monday that he is now seriously looking at the Wood with Toby’s Corner who won the Whirlaway before running a flat third in the Gotham. Motion mentioned the easier ship as a primary reason for considering the Wood, a race his sire, Bellamy Road, won by 17 1/4 lengths in 2005.

“I’m not crazy about running against Uncle Mo, but if ever there was a time to run against him maybe second time off the layoff,” Motion said. “I’ve always found that second time off a layoff is hard when they run so big off the layoff. I’m looking for an angle I guess.”

Motion said his horse might have regressed in the Gotham, which was his second start off a layoff coming off a big victory in the Whirlaway. Motion said his horse would have two breezes before the Wood, the first being this Saturday at Fair Hill.

– additional reporting by Jay Privman