Few sayings on the racetrack are older than "horses for courses," and by now there can be no doubt that the course for Instrument Landing is New York's Aqueduct. Last Saturday he won the $142,750 Wood Memorial there—as good a horse race as one would ever hope to see. At the finish of the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles, Instrument Landing's nose was just in front of the onrushing Screen King, with intriguing newcomer Czaravich half a length back in third, a nose in front of Smarten. The Wood was one of the most competitive pre-Kentucky Derby races in the past few years, but it left those fans looking toward Louisville in something of a quandary. Does Instrument Landing, rated seventh behind Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster among 1978's top 2-year-olds in the Experimental Handicap, have to carry that Aqueduct track around with him to be a winner?
Perhaps not, but if he could he would. Since November 1978, Instrument Landing has run six times and won three stakes. The three victories have all come at Aqueduct. In his other three races, all at Santa Anita, Instrument Landing, who is owned by Thomas Bancroft and his brother William of Maryland's Pen-Y-Bryn Farm, could finish no better than fifth. Doing poorly on one track, however, doesn't mean that a horse can't move on to another and rebuild sagging fortunes. As recently as 1976, Bold Forbes struggled at Santa Anita before returning to Aqueduct, where he performed like a different horse. Bold Forbes went on to win the Wood, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont.
Instrument Landing, a son of Grey Dawn II-Pate A Choux, is that rarity, a horse that has faced both Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster. In the Young America stakes at the Meadowlands in New Jersey last October, Instrument Landing lost to Spectacular Bid by a neck while getting nine pounds from the winner. This April at Santa Anita, Instrument Landing lost to Flying Paster by 16 lengths while running at equal weights in the Santa Anita Derby. Instrument Landing encountered serious difficulties on the first turn in the Santa Anita Derby and was never in contention, winding up seventh.
The Wood is the last real chance a New York-based horse has of convincing his owners that he is competitive enough to start in the Kentucky Derby. Falling as it does two weeks before the first leg of the Triple Crown, its timing is perfect, and the success of Wood winners at Churchill Downs in recent years has been impressive. In 1975 Foolish Pleasure won the Wood and the Derby; in 1976 Bold Forbes did likewise, as did Seattle Slew in 1977. Last year Believe It won the Wood before finishing third to Affirmed and Alydar in both the Derby and the Preakness.
The 55th Wood was interesting for several reasons. General Assembly, a good-looking son of Secretariat, entered the race following a strong win in the Gotham two weeks before. Screen King, one of the heroes of the barren winter scene in New York, had won four of his six races while never finishing worse than third and was being stretched out to 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles for the first time. Smarten, who had run second to Golden Act in the Arkansas Derby, had zigzagged his way across the country to try the Wood. Although not nominated to the Kentucky Derby, Smarten couldn't be overlooked in the Wood.
And in a period of a month, Czaravich (by Nijinsky II from Black Satin II), who was unraced as a 2-year-old, had blossomed and was entered in the Wood with only three races—run at distances of 1[3/16] miles, 1 mile and 70 yards and 1 mile—behind him. While he had shown his awkward greenness on each of those occasions, there was no doubt that Czaravich had potential. And he was trained by Billy Turner, who had brought Seattle Slew through his 2-year-old races and the Triple Crown undefeated. Turner has a reputation for excellence as a trainer, but he is also one to move a horse carefully.
"I know that it may be asking quite a bit of Czaravich to tackle experienced horses at this stage," Turner said before the Wood, "but he has done well so far. I expect him to run good, but I also expect him to have to run very good to beat General Assembly, Screen King and Instrument Landing."
About an hour before starting time, Turner and David Whiteley, Instrument Landing's trainer, were in the receiving barn on the backstretch, passing the time before their horses would be called to the track. "Billy, put the light on in Czaravich's stall," Whiteley said. "I want to get a look at him." The switch was turned on and there stood big (16.2 hands), handsome Czaravich. Whiteley looked at the powerful horse, then turned to Turner and, in mock horror, joked, "Well, I've seen him now and I understand why you kept the light off."
None of the trainers of the top horses in the Wood thought they would have to face so large a field. On the morning that entries were taken, General Assembly's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, said, "I've heard that 13 horses are entered. I find that hard to believe." Turner, on the other hand, said, "I don't expect more than eight horses to run."
Ten horses ultimately started, with General Assembly, thus far Secretariat's most successful son, with earnings of $205,000, drawing the outside post position, a difficult obstacle to overcome because of the short run to the first turn at Aqueduct. General Assembly left the gate stumbling, and when he was sent into the first turn by Jockey Jacinto Vasquez, he was carried wide.
The horse on the lead was Instument Landing, ridden by Angel Cordero Jr., and when Cordero gets in front he usually takes control of a race. He was about to do so again in the Wood. Cordero let Instrument Landing lead for six furlongs in 1:12⅕ very relaxed time considering that Bold Forbes was caught in 1:09[4/5] at the same point in 1976.
General Assembly, meanwhile, had gotten up to second at the head of the stretch, Screen King was moving from back in the pack and the exciting Czaravich was very much in contention. In the stretch, Instrument Landing was close to the rail with Screen King on the outside; in between were Smarten and Czaravich. The four came to the line in a rousing finish. Even those standing near the line couldn't tell with certainty if Instrument Landing had held on or had been overtaken by Screen King in the closing strides. After officials studied the photo finish, Instrument Landing's number went up on the board. His time was 1:49⅕ better than Believe It's 1:49[4/5] last year but slower than Bold Forbes' 1:47[2/5].
Despite having won both the Nashua and Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct last season, Instrument Landing's poor winter form in California had dissuaded bettors from backing him in the Wood and he paid a generous $17.20. His victory Saturday was worth $85,650, pushing his career earnings to $198,725.
General Assembly flattened out in the stretch and finished fifth. Of the first five finishers in the Wood, probably only Instrument Landing, General Assembly and Screen King will go on to Louisville to meet Spectacular Bid, Flying Paster and Golden Act.
"To be perfectly honest," the disappointed Jolley said the following morning, "I can't offer any excuses for General Assembly, but I'll probably send him on to Kentucky anyway." Despite the impressive but unexpected win, Whiteley was somewhat noncommittal about Instrument Landing's immediate plans. "He's a New York horse," the trainer said, "and he likes it here. I'd say right now that we're not anxious to go to Kentucky, but we still have time before making that decision." Luis Barrera, Screen King's conditioner and the brother of Laz Barrera, who had Triple Crown winner Affirmed last year, had no reservations about plans for his horse: "Screen King will go in the Derby. You can bet on that. He'll run a distance."
With Spectacular Bid's next start set for this week's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, some trainers are still waiting to see the Derby favorite's final prep before firming up plans to run against him at Louisville. The task of beating two outstanding horses in a Kentucky Derby can be forbidding, but Instrument Landing's long, bewildering winter has turned into a spring with promise.