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Saturday, March 31, 2012
A 'Nickle' this week; $1 million next week

By Bob Ehalt

Catch a Thief wins the 2012 Plugged Nickle at Aqueduct.
Catch a Thief gets under the wire to win the 2012 Plugged Nickle at Aqueduct.

On a weekend that’s the calm before the storm, at least there was an appropriate choice for Saturday’s stakes at Aqueduct.

Shortly before the $1 million Florida Derby will be contested at Gulfstream, the Big A’s card will be highlighted a $75,000 overnight stakes named after a horse that should a ring bell with equine trivia buffs. It’s called the Plugged Nickle, in honor of a T.J. Kelly-trained runner who, despite the typo in his name, became one of the top 3-year-olds of 1980 and was the very first horse to beat the legendary Genuine Risk.

That happened in the 1980 Wood Memorial when both Plugged Nickle and stablemate Colonel Moran finished in front of Genuine Risk, who a few weeks later rebounded to beat the boys and become the first filly in 65 years to capture the Kentucky Derby.

History lessons aside, memories of Plugged Nickle and Genuine Risk are a rather nice segue into next Saturday’s featured race at Aqueduct, which, of course, is the $1 million Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial.

Genuine Risk was one of 13 Derby winners since 1950 that raced in the Wood, and she played a key role in fashioning the 1973-81 glory days of the race when it produced six out of nine victors in the Run for the Roses.

More recently the Wood has not been a springboard to success at Churchill Downs since Funny Cide in 2003, though this year’s field promises to have a few starters who might be good enough to add to the lore of New York’s definitive Derby prep.

The Wood may have lost some of its luster when reigning Juvenile champ Hansen opted to run in the Blue Grass, but you can’t knock it with a field that includes Alpha, who already owns two 2012 N.Y. stakes wins, My Adonis, who finished right behind Hansen in his last two starts, and perhaps the most intriguing Derby candidate of all, the undefeated Gemologist.

Alpha’s connections shipped their colt from New York to Florida last month and then hemmed and hawed over their colt’s final Derby prep, considering first the Florida Derby and then the Louisiana Derby. But once Hansen was pointed toward the Blue Grass, Godolphin Racing and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin decided on a return trip to New York.

My Adonis was spared the frequent flier points, staying in New York after finishing second to Hansen in the Gotham over the Big A’s inner track.

Considering that both horses prefer to come from off the pace -- with My Adonis being more of a closer than Alpha -- they should relish the added distance of the mile-and-an-eighth Wood.

How Gemologist handles the nine furlongs is a question that could alter the pace scenario in the Derby. Winner of Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Jockey Club at two, Gemologist registered a smashing 2012 debut when he posted a front-running, seven-length victory in an allowance race at Gulfstream over Hopeful winner Currency Swap.

If he can stretch out and still kick some dirt in the face of Alpha and My Adonis, it will give him more than enough graded stakes earnings to race in the Derby and provide speedsters like Hansen with yet another challenger on the front end of the mile-and-a-quarter classic.

Other candidates for the Wood include Tampa Bay Derby winner Prospective; Casual Trick, who was seventh behind Union Rags in the Fountain of Youth; speedy Miracle Wood winner The Lumber Guy, who should press Gemologist on the front end; Tiger Walk, who was fourth in the Gotham; as well as Brimstone Island, Cozzetti and Teeth of the Dog.

Saturday’s top-notch card will also feature three other graded stakes, highlighted by the Grade 1 $400,000 Carter Handicap, which will serve up a rematch of the Tom Fool thriller between Calibrachoa and Caleb’s Posse, with Preakness winner Shackleford and Jackson Bend joining the fray this time around.

The $250,000 Bay Shore, a Grade 3 seven-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds, lists Beggarthyneighbor, Hardened Wildcat, How Do I Win, Maan, Perfect Trippi, Phil Dancer and Trinniberg among the possible starters.

The undefeated Agave Kiss is a question mark for the $250,000 Comely, a Grade 3 mile stakes for 3-year-old fillies being targeted by Broadway’s Alibi, Millionreasonswhy, Nuffsaid Nuffsaid, Off Limits, Singlet, and Welcome Guest.

After a long and difficult winter, it should be a great card of racing and a vivid reminder that the start of the year’s best and most enjoyable days of racing is right around the corner. You can bet a lot more than a plugged nickel on that.