NEW YORK - Talent overcame experience yesterday in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro, 3-year-olds making just their fourth starts, finished one-two in the critical lead-in to the Kentucky Derby.
Neither will probably be favored in the first leg of the Triple Crown May 4 at Churchill Downs. That honor will likely fall to Harlan's Holiday, impressive winner yesterday in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
The Wood, Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby - the final three major tests for Kentucky Derby candidates - provided racing fans their best look yet at the horses likely to compete in America's most-watched race.
Buddha, Medaglia d'Oro and Sunday Break, third in the Wood, also provided a glimpse of possible greatness. Sunday Break had raced only five times entering the Wood. The three horses - all striking, finely bred and trained by capable horsemen - could develop into stars at a time when racing, from its youngest to its oldest runners, offers a bland menu.
Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro ran side by side for most of the 1 1/8 -mile race in front of 20,103 patrons. As they turned for home, with Sunday Break at their flank, their lack of seasoning rested in the hands of three of the most experienced jockeys - Pat Day on Buddha, Laffit Pincay Jr. on Medaglia d'Oro and Gary Stevens on Sunday Break.
With barely enough room between horses to cock their arms, the jockeys whipped aggressively right-handed. Any of the horses could have won, it appeared. But Buddha prevailed by a head over Medaglia d'Oro, and Sunday Break trailed the runner-up by a mere half-length.
"It was all Pat Day," said H. James Bond, trainer of Buddha. "It was a typical Pat Day ride. He always saves something for last."
Said Day: "When the other horse [Medalgia d'Oro] came back on him in the end, my horse wasn't giving up anything. It was a super effort."
Bond acknowledged that such lightly raced horses seldom win Grade I, $750,000 races. But he said Buddha, a son of Unbridled's Song, was so intelligent, so quick at learning his lessons, that he could overcome his lack of seasoning.
"He's done a lot in a really short time," Bond said. "He's something from God. He's something special. Everything he does is just bam, bam, bam."
Bond, a 46-year-old New Yorker, has never run a horse in the Derby. Buddha would have history to conquer. The last horse to win the Derby with only four previous starts was Exterminator in 1918.
As the 3-1 second choice, Buddha paid $8.20 to win and headed a $23.60 exacta and $144 trifecta. Medaglia d'Oro raced as the 2-1 favorite, and Sunday Break started at 7-1. Buddha completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 48.61 seconds.
Finishing behind the top three were Saarland, Blue Burner, Iwin and Nokoma. Laissezaller, the 50-1 European colt making his American debut, suffered a broken right-hind ankle racing on the backstretch. He was vanned off the track and later euthanized.
Bond wasn't the only trainer happy after the race. Bobby Frankel, trainer of Medaglia d'Oro; Neil Drysdale, trainer of Sunday Break; and Shug McGaughey, trainer of Saarland, were all pleased with their horses and quick to announce their destination as the Kentucky Derby.
"I was very happy with this race," Frankel said. "He's a young, strong horse. Next race. Next race."
Said Drysdale of Sunday Break: "He got a little tired at the end. I think he'll improve quite a bit off this race."
McGaughey praised Saarland's effort despite his colt's finishing 2 3/4 lengths behind Sunday Break. He said Saarland, a late-speed specialist, had little chance to make up ground behind a "pace-less race."
Said McGaughey: "That was a tough assignment the way the race set up. I think we tried to do the impossible."
John Velazquez, Saarland's jockey, was less complimentary.
"When he got into the lane, he didn't have that other gear that he's had in his other races," Velazquez said. "He just flattened out."
Bill Mott and Jerry Bailey, trainer and rider, respectively, of Blue Burner, offered no excuses. Blue Burner and Saarland were both 7-2.
"The lack of pace didn't help us," Mott said. "But he never put in a run, anyway."
NOTES. Affirmed Success, the amazing 8-year-old gelding, captured the Grade I, $350,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct. His one-length victory as the 7-2 third choice pushed his earnings past $2 million. He completed the mile in 1 minute, 21.84 seconds. Voodoo finished second, Burning Roma third.