OZONE PARK, N.Y. -- Trainer Todd Pletcher left Aqueduct following last year's Wood Memorial scratching his head after heavily favored Uncle Mo faded to third, throwing his Kentucky Derby aspirations into disarray.
One year later, Pletcher left Aqueduct Saturday afternoon all smiles and pretty confident he has a big chance to win his second Kentucky Derby after Gemologist outgamed a troubled-trip Alpha to the wire to win Saturday's $1 million Wood Memorial by a neck.
It was three lengths back to Teeth of the Dog, who was followed in the order of finish by Tiger Walk, The Lumber Guy, Street Life, and My Adonis. Casual Trick was pulled up around the far turn, owing to the continuing breathing problems that have plagued him since February. Trainer Nick Zito reported later that the horse was sound.
The victory kept Gemologist undefeated from five career starts and by collecting $600,000, he now assures himself a spot in the starting gate for the May 5 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where he is 2 for 2.
Pletcher trains Gemologist, a son of Tiznow, for WinStar Farm, with whom he teamed to win the 2010 Derby with Super Saver.
"With his pedigree, with him being by a dual Breeders' Cup Classic winner - one of those at Churchill - and this horse being 2 for 2 at Churchill, I think he'd have as good a chance as anybody," Pletcher said.
Uncle Mo didn't get to the 2011 Derby and Pletcher ran 12th with Stay Thirsty. Pletcher said Gemologist "might be the closest thing to having a favorite we ever had."
It took a while for Saturday's Wood Memorial to develop as Pletcher though it would, but it eventually did around the first turn.
Gemologist, under Javier Castellano was third and three wide behind a headstrong The Lumber Guy, who was being chased by My Adonis through a quarter in 23.04 seconds, a half-mile in 47.57 seconds, and six furlongs in 1:12.54.
Gemologist made a three-wide move to the leaders approaching the quarter pole, sling-shoted to the lead in upper stretch, and then appeared to loaf until Alpha came to him. At that time, Gemologist got back to running and fended off Alpha to the wire.
On a track that produced slow times all day, Gemologist covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.96 -- the third slowest Wood since 1990 -- and returned $4.40 as the favorite.
"I was concerned because my horse was still looking around at the crowd," said Castellano, who won the 2005 Wood on Bellamy Road. "When he saw the horse coming, he took off again."
Pletcher said Gemologist would ship to south Florida on Sunday and likely train at Palm Meadows until May 1.
Alpha, winner of the Count Fleet and Withers in his last two starts, also earned his way into the Derby with a runner-up finish.
Entering the first turn, jockey Ramon Dominguez had to check Alpha after My Adonis and Casual Trick came over on him.
Dominguez said Alpha quickly recovered, got back on stride, and advanced steadily while along the inside. Dominguez got Alpha into the clear for the stretch drive and it looked like he had dead aim on Gemologist, but couldn't get past him.
"Turning for home I got excited, felt like I was going to run down the winner," Dominguez said. "But that horse when he felt my pressure he went on again."
Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Alpha for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing, said he anticipates the horse moving onto the Derby.
"We got beat a 'zop' but we're going on to May 5," McLaughlin said. "It was a good race and a good test, he did everything right except [win]."