04/10/2002 11:00PM

Wood's a final exam for most of field

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - As Kentucky Derby preps go, Saturday's Grade 1 Wood Memorial has more intrigue than a John Grisham novel.

With the possible exceptions of Remsen Stakes winner Saarland and Florida Derby runner-up Blue Burner, none of the entrants in the $750,000 Wood can yet be considered an accomplished Kentucky Derby contender. But oh how things could change by late Saturday afternoon.

"This is the answer to a lot of horses' questions where are they going next," said James Bond, trainer of the intriguing Buddha. "Saarland and Billy's horse," Bond said, referring to the Bill Mott-trained Blue Burner, "have their tickets punched on the train and their fare is paid. These other horses have to get their fare paid."

The Wood, which has produced the last two Kentucky Derby winners, highlights a 10-race Aqueduct card that includes the Grade 1 Carter Handicap for older sprinters and the Grade 3 Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-old sprinters. It also is the first leg of the national Big 3 Pick 3 wager, which also links the Blue Grass from Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn.

Perhaps no horse embodies the anticipation surrounding this year's Wood more than Buddha. A son of 1996 Wood winner Unbridled's Song, Buddha makes his stakes debut after two dominant victories at Gulfstream Park.

The Japanese-bred Sunday Break, whose trainer, Neil Drysdale, won the Wood and Kentucky Derby in 2000 with Fusaichi Pegasus, is another interesting contender. Sunday Break has won three straight races, including a nine-furlong allowance at Aqueduct on March 27.

Last month, Medaglia d'Oro went from an unknown to Grade 2 winner when he upset then-Derby favorite Siphonic in the San Felipe at Santa Anita. In that race, he jumped up from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles.

Then there's the European import Laissezaller, who has only one win from five starts, but who has run two creditable races at 10 furlongs on dirt in England. Nokoma, who was only a neck behind Saarland in the Remsen, will try to reestablish his form after two bad performances at Gulfstream. Iwin, a longshot trained by Nick Zito, completes the field.

A month ago, few had heard of Medaglia d'Oro. After trainer Bobby Frankel purchased him privately for owner Edmund Gann following a win in a six-furlong maiden race at Oaklawn Park, Frankel threw him to the wolves, and Medaglia d'Oro responded, re-rallying after being passed by two horses to win the San Felipe by 2 1/2 lengths.

Frankel said Medaglia d'Oro still has to earn his way to the Derby, but thinks he will do just that.

"I'm thinking he is going to run pretty good, to be honest with you," Frankel said. "The Wood is not going to be a killer race and we'll get a line on him. He's done everything right and if he improves like he has from his first start to his second start and his second start to his third start, if he improves just a little bit to his fourth start, then we'll be in good shape."

Medaglia d'Oro, under Laffit Pincay Jr., and Buddha, with Pat Day up, look like the two horses with the best early speed. With the addition of blinkers and an inside draw, Nokoma figures to be close up as well. Mike Smith, a three-time Wood winner, rides Nokoma.

Trainer Shug McGaughey would like to see a contested duel to help his late-runner Saarland. Saarland is coming off a second-place finish in the Gotham, and McGaughey is just looking for a solid effort to keep Saarland on the road to Louisville.

"If he runs good and doesn't [win], all things being equal, we'll move on," McGaughey said. "I've been pleased with everything he's done since he's been in New York."

Blue Burner, coming off a second-place finish in the Florida Derby, is in a similar situation.

"I don't think this has to be our best race," Mott said. "If he stays where he's at and runs something close to his last race, I mean, I don't think he has to win."

Sunday Break raised some eyebrows the way he weaved during the stretch run of his allowance win here on March 27. Trainer Neil Drysdale said the horse got lazy when jockey Gary Stevens stopped riding him, causing the problem. The horse has trained very well at Aqueduct since and figures to be sitting just off the pace.

"It was reassuring to see the way he galloped out, so we know he can get the distance," Drysdale said. "He's a late-maturing colt. He seems to be headed in the right direction."

Come nightfall Saturday, we'll know how many of these will be headed to Louisville.

THE FIELD

WOOD MEMORIAL

Purse: $750,000, 1 1/8 miles, Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYODDS

1BuddhaP. Day7-2

2NokomaM. Smith12-1

3Sunday BreakG. Stevens6-1

4Medaglia d'OroL. Pincay3-1

5IwinK. Desormeaux30-1

6LaissezallerR. Migliore12-1

7SaarlandJ. Velazquez5-2

8Blue BurnerJ. Bailey5-1

All starters carry 123 pounds

Odds by Mike Watchmaker

Television: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. (Eastern) on ESPN

for Aqueduct entries.

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