OZONE PARK, NY – Fresh off his fourth Florida Derby victory with Always Dreaming on Saturday, trainer Todd Pletcher has shored up his always-formidable contingent for Wood Memorial Day at Aqueduct Racetrack, led by the much-anticipated stakes debut of Battalion Runner in the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets on April 8.
Scratched from the Florida Derby as the 3-1 second-choice on the morning line, Battalion Runner was confirmed for the Wood following a 1/2-mile breeze at Pletcher’s Palm Beach Downs training base on Sunday morning. The gray colt by Unbridled’s Song covered the distance in 49 1/5 seconds under his regular jockey, Hall of Famer John Velazquez, per Gulfstream Park.
Battalion Runner is owned by Vincent and Teresa Viola’s New York-based St. Elias Stable, which also owns an interest in the Kentucky Derby-bound Always Dreaming.
“Part of the strategy was, we were trying to keep him and Always Dreaming separated because of the common ownership,” said Pletcher. “So, it kind of came down to finalizing which race we were ultimately going to end up in. Based on the breeze this morning, we felt like the Wood made the most sense.”
A $700,000 yearling purchase, Battalion Runner garnered attention when he broke his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion by 8 3/4 lengths on December 31 at Gulfstream. He followed that effort with a two-turn stretch out in his most recent start, dueling through a 1 1/16-mile optional-claiming contest to prevail by 1 1/4 lengths as the 1-5 favorite on February 3.
“We feel like he’s consistently run well fresh and we’ve been training all along, with either running in the Florida Derby or the following weekend in mind, so hopefully, we have him fit enough and ready enough to run his best,” Pletcher said.
Pletcher, who has won four iterations of the Wood with Eskendereya (2010), Gemologist (2012), Verrazano (2013), and Outwork (2016), will also be represented by Three Diamonds Farm’s Bonus Points.
Based this winter at Belmont Park, the Maryland-bred son of Majestic Warrior closed late in his graded stakes debut to finish second to El Areeb in the Grade 3 Jerome on January 2. Bonus Points returned for the Grade 3 Withers on February 4, traveling wide throughout to finish fourth.
“He’s a consistent horse, he tries hard,” said Pletcher. “We’re hoping that, maybe with a more legitimate pace, he’ll get a little better run at it. We need him to step up and improve a bit, but we feel like he’s a horse that’ll handle the distance and, with a little bit of pace setup, might be able to get a piece of it.”
Also on Wood Day, Grade 3 winner Theory is set to make his kick off his 2017 campaign in the Grade 3 Bay Shore for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs. As a 2-year-old, the Gemologist colt won the six-furlong Grade 3 Futurity in impressive fashion at Belmont in October. Theory spiked a fever immediately following a dull 10th-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, his first try around two turns, and was turned out at WinStar before joining Pletcher’s Palm Beach string in late December.
“He’s been very well and training really good,” said Pletcher. “He’s probably been ready to run for a couple of weeks now. It’s just that the [Spectacular Bid at Gulfstream] didn’t fill and we had to go to a backup plan, but he seems like he’s been happy and training well.
“We feel like he’s well-suited for one-turn races,” he added. “We’re not ruling out stretching him out down the road, we just felt like this was sort of the logical distance to get him started.”
Pletcher’s other Wood Memorial weekend contenders include multiple Grade 3 winner Tommy Macho for the Grade 1, $400,000 Carter Handicap, Alex M. Robb and Haynesfield victor Send It In for the Grade 3, $150,000 Excelsior, and recent maiden winner Stay Fond for the Grade 2, $300,000 Gazelle, all on the Wood Memorial undercard.