OZONE PARK, NY – In a performance that stamped his ticket to the Kentucky Derby, Irish War Cry reverted to the sterling form that won him the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes this past winter, stalking the pace set in the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial by favorite Battalion Runner and taking command in the stretch to draw away and win the 93rd running of Aqueduct Racetrack’s signature race on Saturday.
In the morning, Irish War Cry is calm and collected; in the afternoon, he can sometimes be wound up tight.
In the week leading up to the Wood, trainer Graham Motion knew he needed to get his chestnut colt to settle down. Motion made a slight equipment change for the race, put his faith in new rider Rajiv Maragh, and nervously sat back and watched to see what would happen.
Irish War Cry completed the 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds in 1:50.91 on Aqueduct’s main track. Owned by breeder Isabelle de Tomaso, Irish War Cry beat Battalion Runner by 3 1/2 lengths.
After the race, Motion struggled to find words.
“That was more like it; I’m speechless,” he said, pausing, excitement in his voice. “I’ve never understood why he would not relax, this horse. He’s very classy, he’s very sensible.”
When he won the Holy Bull in February, Irish War Cry, a New Jersey-bred son of Hall of Fame runner Curlin, knocked off Gunnevera and 2-year-old champion Classic Empire in a seemingly effortless, front-running fashion.
The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth was his logical next step, but as a commanding even-money favorite in that race, Irish War Cry chased the pace set by Three Rules and inexplicably disintegrated, finishing 21 3/4 lengths behind Gunnevera.
Motion had no answers, although he believed Irish War Cry was too keyed up to run effectively. Motion returned the colt to his base at Fair Hill in Maryland the week leading up to the Wood, put a figure 8 bridle on him, and put Maragh on his back three mornings in a row.
“I’ve never had a jockey get on a horse in the morning before,” said Motion, who teamed with Maragh when Main Sequence won the 2014 Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga and Grade 1 Joe Hirsch turf Classic at Belmont in that horse’s championship year. “Me and the agent [Tony Micallef] thought it was sensible to do it.”
Whatever he did, it worked. When the gate opened, Irish War Cry broke from his outside post in the field of eight and went three-wide as long shot True Timber chased Battalion Runner into the first turn.
On the backside, Irish War Cry settled into a steady stride through a 1/4-mile in 23.50. Maragh allowed his mount to ease up toward Battalion Runner after a 1/2-mile in 47.34, and the race was on.
As the two leaders entered the far turn, Irish War Cry drew abreast of Battalion Runner and the pair dueled into the lane, when the winner moved to the lead with a single left-handed crack of the whip and a vigorous hand ride by Maragh.
“He was always in a smooth rhythm,” Maragh said. “He relaxed real easily. He did everything I wanted him to do without a lot of effort. He did it all in rhythm. He wasn’t rank at all. He settled beautifully. By getting on him in the mornings, I didn’t think I’d have a hard time getting to settle because he goes so easy and comfortable. We ran good together today.”
Second choice Cloud Computing failed to reach contention and finished third, 3 1/2 lengths behind Battalion Runner. He was followed home by True Timber, Bonus Points, Glennrichment, Mo Town, and Stretch’s Stone.
In winning the Wood, Irish War Cry earned 100 qualifying points to guarantee himself a starting position in the Kentucky Derby. Motion said the only decision to make now was whether to work Irish War Cry at Fair Hill before the race or ship straight out.
Battalion Runner picked up 40 Derby qualifying points for his runner-up finish. Cloud Computing finished third, adding 20 points to the 20 he earned for his second-place finish in the Grade 3 Gotham. True Timber was awarded 10 points, bringing him to a total of 16.
Irish War Cry returned $9, $4.70, and $3.20. Battalion Runner brought back $3.60 and $2.50, while Cloud Computing paid $2.60 to show.
Trainer Graham Motion, Irish War Cry: “I think it’s so good that Rajiv [Maragh] came to the barn and has been on him the last few mornings to see how he is. He’s not a difficult horse; he’s not a rank horse; he’s a very classy horse. We both thought it was a good idea for Rajiv to get on him in the mornings. I thought he won pretty comfortably, and it doesn’t seem like the distance (1 1/4 miles) of the Derby will be an issue.
“I haven’t spoken to Rajiv yet, but he looked like he was pretty confident. He probably could have waited a little longer, if he had needed to. It seemed like he had a lot of horse. I think the equipment change (to a figure 8 bridle) probably helped. It gives you a little more control. But he had the perfect trip today. I don’t know what happened last time. It’s just a complete puzzle to me.
“It’s extremely gratifying to get this horse back on track. That was huge. I don’t remember having a situation like this, when I felt so much was on the line.
“I think Rajiv must have felt like he had a lot of horse because he moved to the leaders so confidently. It’s also gratifying to win this race for Mrs. de Tomaso.”
Jockey Rajiv Maragh, Irish War Cry: “The race went well. We had a great post. He broke good out of the gate. He was sharp into the first turn. There was a little pace in front of him, which is what we were hoping for to get in a good tracking position.
“When I was down and out, these are the days I dreamed about. These are the days that made me feel I wanted to ride. You never know if you’ll get them again after being off so long. I can’t be more thankful for everyone who has been there for my recovery and supporting me now that I’m back. I’ve never been so emotional after a race in my life as I was after this.”
Assistant trainer Byron Hughes, Battalion Runner: “Going from allowance to a Grade 2, two turns, shipping all the way up to New York, I thought he ran a good race. He was on the front end, doing all the heavy lifting. I thought he dug in, and according to Johnny (Velazquez), he just got a little green there. It was a big effort for his fourth start overall and first start in a graded stakes. It was his first start at 1 mile and 1/8, so it’s not disappointing.
“We were going to let Johnny break and go to the first turn. They broke well and let him do his thing. I thought he looked comfortable on the backside. He just came up short.
“Getting the 40 points should be enough to get you in the Derby, so that’ll be something Todd and owners will talk about, and we’ll go from there. We’ll see how he comes out of it. He seems to be improving. He’s talented, he’s always shown that in the mornings and the afternoons.”
Jockey John Velazquez, Battalion Runner: “He broke well. We got into a good position going into the first turn. I thought that’s where I was going to end up. He ran a good race. He was a little spotty during the race. I don’t know why he did that. He was a little unsure whether he was going to run or not.”
Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., Cloud Computing: “I got a very good trip, can’t complain about it. He missed the break a little bit, but he got in a good position on the backside following the winner. I was waiting, waiting, waiting, they just got away from me. I got beat by two very good horses.”