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Shagaf favorite in 8-horse field for Wood at Big A

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NEW YORK (AP) So far, Shagaf has been a picture of perfection on the race track.

The biggest test for the 3-year-old bay colt comes Saturday, when he takes on eight rivals in the $1 million Wood Memorial, New York’s major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby.

Trained by Chad Brown, Gotham Stakes winner Shagaf was made the 2-1 morning-line favorite and drew the inside No. 1 post for the 1 1/8-mile race at Aqueduct Racetrack. No worries for Brown, who also sends out 8-1 shot Flexibility.

“Shagaf is doing well. His works have been good and so was his Gotham,” said Brown, a rising star in the training ranks, after Shagaf went for a morning gallop at Belmont’s training track Wednesday. “He’s certainly being doing everything right. He’s won all three of his races.

“We’ll be adding distance (in the Wood) and we’re looking for him to finish off the race strong. We’ll see the best of him the further he runs.”

Shagaf will be ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., the nation’s second-leading rider in earnings.

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Outwork, second in the Tampa Bay Derby after two wins to open his career, is the 5-2 second choice and drew the outside No. 8 post. Matt King Coal is next at 3-1, leaving from the No. 6 gate.

The Wood carries 170 Derby qualifying points, with 100 to the winner, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth. The Derby is limited to 20 starters. If more are entered, the field is determined by points. Earning points is not a concern for Shagaf, who has 50 for last month’s Gotham win.

All others need Derby points.

Outwork, trained by Todd Pletcher, has 20 points but still might need a top-four finish to make the Derby. Flexibility has 15 points and Adventist, trained by Leah Gyarmati, has 12.

Matt King Coal is making his stakes debut for trainer Linda Rice. The colt came off a four-month layoff from a fever and won a first-level allowance race last month.

Brown hopes Flexibility will rebound from his fourth-place finish in the Gotham. As a 2-year-old, the colt finished second twice to top Derby contender Mohaymen, and Flexibility won the Jerome in his first race this year.

“I think he’s coming into the Wood in great shape,” Brown said. “Hopefully, he can use this race to secure some additional (Derby) points.”

The field, from the rail out, is Shagaf (2-1), Adventist (10-1), Trojan Nation (30-1), Tale of S’avall (20-1), Flexibility (8-1), Matt King Coal (3-1), Dalmore (12-1) and Outwork (5-2).

Follow Richard Rosenblatt on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/rosenblattap

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.