A Horse for the Course in the Woodward Stakes

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The final Saturday of the 2019 Saratoga meet brings another action-packed card featuring four graded stakes races, including the $750,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I).

The 1 1/8-mile Woodward has been overshadowed in recent years by Saratoga's similar Whitney Stakes (gr. I) held four weeks prior, but the Woodward remains a valuable race in its own right. Over the last dozen years, champions Lawyer Ron, Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, Havre de Grace, and Gun Runner have been among the notable winners.

The 2019 Woodward field lacks a standout star on par with the above-mentioned legends, but while that's disappointing from a sporting standpoint, from a betting standpoint it makes the race much more appealing. On paper, the Woodward appears to be a wide-open race with plenty of options for handicappers to consider.

The 5-2 morning line favorite is #7 Yoshida, who unleashed a strong late rally to win this race last year by two lengths. A versatile Grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf, Yoshida is a formidable runner on his best day, but his inconsistency makes it difficult to predict when he'll bring his A-game.

Consider the following: Yoshida is winless in five starts since last year's Woodward. In three of those races, he never remotely challenged for victory. But upon returning to Saratoga for the Whitney Stakes four weeks ago, he showed new signs of life, charging hard from off the pace to finish second by 1 ¾ lengths behind early Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) favorite McKinzie. For his effort, Yoshida received a career-best 108 Beyer speed figure.

Obviously Yoshida has an affinity for the Saratoga main track, but can we expect him to repeat his Whitney performance in the Woodward? He's wheeling back four weeks later and facing a field without much speed on paper, and he'll be saddled with top weight of 124 pounds, conceding as many as six pounds to some capable opponents. Yoshida can certainly hit the board in the Woodward, but at 5-2, I'm not sure this inconsistent five-year-old offers any value for win purposes.

I'm also hesitant to trust #5 Preservationist, the 7-2 morning line second choice. Yes, the son of Arch dominated the 1 ¼-mile Suburban Stakes (gr. II) two starts back, drawing away in the homestretch to win by 4 ½ lengths with a 108 Beyer. But this delicate six-year-old has struggled to stay sound throughout his career (he's run just nine times since June 2016), and he regressed sharply in the Whitney Stakes, fading to finish fourth by 7 ¾ lengths. Visually, he never looked comfortable to me, and after dueling with McKinzie for early supremacy, Preservationist gave way on the far turn and weakened steadily through the homestretch.

Since I question whether Yoshida and Preservationist are ready to bring their best in the Woodward, I'm inclined to side with #9 Tom's d'Etat instead. Much like Yoshida, Tom's d'Etat has demonstrated a clear-cut fondness for Saratoga, where's he's gone undefeated in three starts. In fact, his two best efforts from a Beyer speed figure perspective have come at Saratoga—he posted a 106 while winning a 1 1/8-mile allowance race by nine lengths in 2017, and he raced to a 104 in the 1 1/8-mile Alydar Stakes on August 2.

I was particularly impressed by Tom's d'Etat's performance in the Alydar. Coming off a couple of hard-trying defeats in the Alysheba Stakes (G2) and Stephen Foster Handicap (G2), Tom's d'Etat could have regressed while facing a quality field in the Alydar. Instead, the son of Smart Strike settled behind a fast pace, grabbed the lead turning for home, easily opened up a three-length advantage, and cruised his way across the finish line to prevail in 1:47.45 seconds.

Tom's d'Etat had something left in the tank at the end of the Alydar, so another strong effort should be in the offing on Saturday. With his tactical speed, he should work out a perfect trip stalking a modest early pace, and if the rail comes up dead on Saturday—as appeared to be the case last week on Travers Day—Tom's d'Etat's wide draw should keep him racing over the best part of the track. For all these reasons, I believe Tom's d'Etat offers the best wagering value in the Woodward field.

Underneath, 12-1 shot #8 Wooderson could be worth including. A lightly-raced four-year-old trained by Todd Pletcher, Wooderson kicked off 2019 with a couple of easy allowance victories at Keeneland and Monmouth, posting solid Beyers of 94 and 95. A step up in class for the Suburban Stakes (G2) ended in failure as Wooderson faded after a half-mile, but this performance was too bad to believe, and Wooderson subsequently rebounded to finish second in the Alydar Stakes.

Contrary to what the past performances might suggest, Wooderson was never really going to catch Tom's d'Etat in the Alydar—the favorite was easing up across the finish line, allowing Wooderson to cut the margin as close as a length. But Wooderson was resolute to the finish line, pulling 6 ¾ lengths clear of third-place finisher (and next-out stakes winner) Golden Brown while posting a career-best 103 Beyer. If Wooderson repeats this performance, he could earn a major piece of the purse on Saturday.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Woodward Stakes?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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