OZONE PARK, N.Y. — Juddmonte Farms' Tacitus punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby, overtaking Tax in the stretch with an impressive move from the outside and closing strong for a 1 ¼-length win in the 95th running of the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Tacitus, who garnered 50 qualifying points to the 'Run for the Roses' on May 5 at Churchill Downs when he won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby last month, earned an additional 100 points by besting the 11-horse Wood Memorial field, rocketing to the top of the leaderboard as the first horse to crack the 150-point threshold this year.
Out of the gate, 51-1 longshot Joevia swung to the far left from the outermost post, nearly running into Overdeliver, before surging to the front with an opening quarter-mile in 23.62 seconds on the fast main track. Not That Brady, at 40-1, also gave chase and dueled Joevia for the early speed, eventually taking the lead with a 46.91 half-mile as the rest of the field stood 7 ½-lengths back.
Nearing the final turn, Tax and Tacitus overtook the pacesetters from the outside. Tax, under jockey Junior Alvarado, held the temporary advantage before Jose Ortiz asked Tacitus for his best, overtaking his rival in the final furlong, completing 1 1/8 miles in a final time of 1:51.23.
"I was pleased with his effort," said Ortiz, who won his first Wood Memorial. "I don't know about the other horses behind me, it was kind of crazy around the first turn. After that, he got a little bumped and he's a big horse. He managed to take that and go on and win the race.
"A mile and a quarter will suit him. The mile and an eighth didn't bother him, so I think going a little bit longer can be good too."
Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott registered his first Wood win and will now be seeking his first career Derby victory and second in a Classic, joining 2010 Belmont Stakes-winner Drosselmeyer.
"I thought it was a very good effort," Mott said. "It was very rough on the first turn, but fortunately he came out of it in good order. When he got down the backside, I thought he had a nice, clear run by himself He kind of got his feet back under him and regrouped a little bit. When it was time to run he started to wear them down.
"It's not a surprise, but you always hope they show up. He's a young horse and you never know what's going to happen in any race. Some horses would have been discouraged with what happened on the first turn. They could have backed out of it or decide they didn't want any part of it after getting roughed up like that."
Off as the 5-2 favorite, Tacitus returned $7.20 on a $2 win wager. The Kentucky homebred improved his career bankroll to $665,500.
"He'll probably stay here for another week and then go to Churchill Downs," Mott said. "I think the race sets him up well. I think the timing is fine. I think we've got a month to go back to the Derby. He's had two races and a lot of handicappers think the third race off the bench is the best, so I hope that group of handicappers is absolutely right. I think this effort puts him at or near the top of the list [of Derby contenders]."
Tax, owned by R.A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable, closed 2 ¾ lengths in front of Haikal for second, earning 40 qualifying points. The Danny Gargan trainee has 72 points after winning the Grade 2 Withers [10 points] on February 2 and third [two points] in the Grade 2 Remsen on December 1. All three of Tax's Derby prep races have come at Aqueduct.
"He ran huge. The horses laying up close all day have been running really well," Gargan said. "I told Junior [Alvarado], let's just break out of there and get a good position. I didn't want to take back. Let's make them run into the first turn and make your move turning for home. If we get run down, it's okay. I don't mind running second today, I just wanted to make sure we got enough Derby points to get in. We might have moved a little early today, but we get to go to Louisville, Kentucky now."
Shadwell Stable's Haikal upped his point total to 70, following a 50-point boon for his Grade 3 Gotham win on March 9 for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Haikal, 3-1-1 in five career starts, beat out Math Wizard by a half-length for third.
"We ran very well. Obviously, his first time around two turns he finished strong. He might do better with a little faster pace, but that could happen if we go to the Derby," McLaughlin said. "You never know, two turns and the distance, it was a good answer — he answered the questions. He ran very well. He can do the distance. I don't know yet (about going to the Kentucky Derby). We'll talk to the owner."
Not That Brady, Final Jeopardy, Hoffa's Union, Grumps Little Tots, Outshine and Overdeliver completed the order of finish. Joevia, who had finished seventh, was disqualified and placed last for interference stemming from the start.
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