NEW YORK -- The scene remains vivid: Two gutsy horses, finally freed of trouble, exploding down the stretch at Aqueduct in a scintillating sprint to the wire.
Red Bullet and Aptitude stamped that vision into memory in the Gotham Stakes three weeks ago at Aqueduct. Red Bullet remained undefeated, and the surging Aptitude finished a half-length behind in one of the most inspiring skirmishes on this year's Triple Crown trail.
Tomorrow, those two and 10 others, including Jinny Vance's Postponed, will compete in the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct.
The Wood is one of three major races tomorrow for 3-year-olds trying to earn berths in the Kentucky Derby May 6. The others are the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
The fields are set: 12 in the Wood, eight in the Blue Grass and 14 in the Arkansas Derby. And so are the morning-line favorites: Fusaichi Pegasus at 4-5 in the Wood, Mighty at 2-1 in the Blue Grass and Snuck In at 2-1 in Arkansas.
Neil Drysdale, trainer of Fusaichi Pegasus, the California dynamo with three wins in four tries, questioned his colt's overwhelming odds.
"There's an undefeated horse in here," Drysdale said. "My horse has been beaten. Maybe he shouldn't be favored."
The undefeated horse is Red Bullet, who has attracted a cult following since his powerful victory Feb. 5 in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park. It was the colt's second victory and prompted a prominent racing columnist to declare Red Bullet "the real thing."
The son of Unbridled didn't race again until the Gotham -- his third win in three tries -- when he awed a national television audience. Trapped behind horses at the head of the stretch, Red Bullet bumped and scrapped his way to the outside. Then, like a bullet, he shot down the stretch with a burst of acceleration rarely seen on dirt.
Riding him for the first time, jockey Alex Solis was impressed.
"Mostly only horses on the grass give you that kind of turn of foot," said Solis, who will fly in from California to ride Red Bullet again. "He hadn't had that much experience, but during that race he acted like an older horse. He fought back, and finally we got out in the clear, and he gave me a really powerful kick."
Solis has ridden other outstanding 3-year-olds, including Captain Bodgit, who was trained at Bowie by Gary Capuano, and Victory Gallop, who was trained as a 2-year-old at Pimlico by Mary Eppler. Solis said Red Bullet reminds him of Captain Bodgit, who three years ago finished second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness.
"He's a very gutsy horse," Solis said of Red Bullet. "He's a fighter."
But he also said of Red Bullet, compared to those other 3-year-olds: "I believe this horse has a little more talent than they had."
Despite Solis' confidence, Red Bullet has raced only three times and never around two turns. The 1 1/8-mile Wood will be his first assignment beyond a mile.
Red Bullet also never raced as a 2-year-old, even though his trainer, Joe Orseno, entered him in a race in late December but scratched him when he drew the outside post. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.
"Everybody talks about his lack of experience," Orseno said. "With some horses I'd be concerned about that. But he's special. Most horses have to struggle to do things he does easily. It's amazing the things this horse does."
Viewers of the Gotham also saw another horse do something amazing. Like Red Bullet, the Bobby Frankel-trained Aptitude was blocked behind horses at the head of the stretch. When he finally broke into the clear he nearly caught Red Bullet in the chase to the wire.
And Aptitude, a son of A. P. Indy, has every right to improve in the Wood because the Gotham was his first race in 2 1/2 months. He had missed training because of a minor illness and heavy rains in southern California, his trainer said.
"You hear it all the time," Frankel said, "but I wouldn't trade places with anybody. I don't know if he can beat Fusaichi Pegasus or Red Bullet: they're both nice horses. But I like where I am right now."
For Postponed, the Wood is his last chance to earn a ticket to the Kentucky Derby. Jinny Vance is listed as his owner, but she owns him in concert with her husband Laddie Dance. They own Taylor's Purchase Farm in Baltimore County as well as Lemon Drop Kid, last year's Belmont and Travers winner.
"If he runs well, we'll put him on a van or plane to Kentucky," the trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, said of Postponed. "If he doesn't, we'll regroup and maybe aim for the Preakness."