SOUTH OZONE PARK, N.Y. -- War Pass broke well, took the lead and ran fast, just the way trainer Nick Zito had hoped he would. But sitting third through those early fractions was Tale of Ekati and Edgar Prado, who would send his horse to the lead just before the wire to win the Grade I, $750,000 Wood Memorial yesterday by a half-length.
In a media viewing room under the grandstands at Aqueduct Racetrack, trainer Barclay Tagg sat with a rolled program in his hand, watching the 1 1/8 -mile race unfold. You could feel his edginess as the race began, and as the horses turned for home you could hear him yelling encouragement for Ekati.
By the time the horse crossed the finish line in 1:52.35 on the slow but somewhat heavy race track, Tagg was out of his seat and bolting for the winner's circle.
"I thought he might be running a little close, a little faster than I'd have liked early," Tagg said. "But Edgar is pretty savvy, and his intuition has served him well over 30 years. He knows what he's doing."
In fact, Prado was enjoying the view before him as much as his own ride.
War Pass' jockey, Cornelio Velasquez, was following his instructions to the letter. Zito had told him to break well, go to the lead and then get off the rail down the stretch because the trainer had noticed the rail was "dead," tiring to the horses.
It had rained here for two days prior to the race, and track officials had canceled racing Friday in an effort to protect the track for yesterday's major race. When the sun came out, the track dried nicely and was considered fast, but Zito and Tagg said they felt the surface was still "heavy" and tiring.
What wasn't in War Pass' game plan was to have a running mate. Inner Light, part of a WinStar Farm entry with Court Vision, trained by Bill Mott, took up position beside War Pass and pressed him through the first half mile.
Although the Wood started fast, with the first quarter run in 22:46, the winning time was the slowest for the Wood since 1952.
Still, Tagg was not disappointed.
"Time only matters when you're doing it," he joked.
Certainly, the early pressing pace took its toll on the leaders.
"It helped my horse a great deal," said Prado, who just sat and waited for Inner Light to run his race and eventually fade to last in the nine-horse field. "It was good for my horse. War Pass was running very fast, but I was having a beautiful trip."
Tale of Ekati paid $19, $6.30 and $3.60. War Pass brought $3.70 and $2.60, and Court Vision was worth $2.40 to show.
War Pass was viewed as the horse to beat yesterday. But he was also viewed as the horse with something to prove after a last-place finish in his latest outing, the Tampa Bay Derby.
Tale of Ekati, a son of Tale of the Cat, who had finished sixth in the Louisiana Derby, was also out to prove his latest race was an abnormality. Both horses appeared to have achieved their goals.
"It's sad that we didn't win, because he is a champion," Zito said. "It would have been wonderful to win the Wood Memorial. But I'm still happy for the horse. I'm glad for the way he ran. He wasn't up the track."
Zito said the horse will ship to Kentucky this morning and train up to the Derby.
"We have to salute the winner," Zito said. "He ran a big race. If War Pass has a good month, we'll see if we can make it to the Derby."
Tagg also said War Pass had rebounded well from the Tampa Bay Derby.
"I thought War Pass was the horse to beat, and it was nice to see Inner Light go after him," said Tagg, who won the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Funny Cide. "But we always thought Tale of Ekati was a good horse. The last time, we took him to the Louisiana Derby and he got a little tangled up in the gate there and ran a disappointing race.
"We still felt good about him, and we worked out some of those issues in the gate. He showed up today, big time."