(Brooklyn Strong / Photo Courtesy of NYRA)

From the NYRA Media Team / Keith McCalmont:


Owner Mark Schwartz, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, will live out a lifelong dream on Saturday when his New York-bred Brooklyn Strong bursts from the gate in the G2, $750,000 Wood Memorial presented by Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack.

The historic Wood Memorial, which offers 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top-four finishers, is the final local prep for the Run for the Roses slated for Saturday, May 1 at Churchill Downs.

Saturday’s lucrative Big A card features the first Grade 1 of 2021 on the NYRA circuit in the $300,000 Carter Handicap, a seven-furlong sprint for older horses, and is bolstered by a trio of Grade 3 events, including the $250,000 Gazelle at nine furlongs for sophomore fillies offering 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Oaks qualifying points; the $200,000 Bay Shore, a seven-furlong sprint for sophomores; and the $150,000 Excelsior at nine furlongs for older horses.

The 67-year-old Schwartz, a retired insurance executive, has fond memories of Aqueduct Racetrack.

“The first track I ever went to was Aqueduct,” said Schwartz. “My dad brought me to see the horses and I just loved it. I was 7-years-old and here we are 60 years later.”

Brooklyn Strong has stirred a renewed passion for racing for the Schwartz family after winning 3-of-4 career starts, including a last-out score in the Grade 2, $150,000 Remsen at Aqueduct.

Schwartz said his wife, Amanda, and their sons Jonathan and Bryan, are counting down the days to Saturday’s main event.

“They’re excited but no one could be as excited as I am,” said Schwartz, with a laugh. “They’re enjoying the experience. My kids are big sports fans but were never really racing fans until now.”

Schwartz, a graduate of Brooklyn College, said coining a name for his stable star came easy, although another option was in the cards for the hockey-loving family who are fans of New York Rangers winger Artemi Panarin.

“The name was easy. He’s by Wicked Strong and I love Brooklyn,” said Schwartz. “But my kids liked the name Breadman. They like the Rangers and Panarin is called the ‘Breadman’ but the name happened to be taken.”

Oddly enough, Brooklyn Strong defeated Breadman, trained by John Terranova for owner Eric Fein, in the Sleepy Hollow in October at Belmont Park on Empire Showcase Day.

The victory marked just the second stakes score for Brooklyn Strong’s trainer Daniel Velazquez, who had captured the race prior, the Maid of the Mist, with filly Laobanonaprayer, a $15,000 purchase owned by the young conditioner.

“Isn’t it weird how that worked out,” said Schwartz. “Breadman is actually a very good horse and was an expensive purchase, but our horse got to be named Brooklyn Strong and I think it’s the right name for him.”

The Wood Memorial holds strong memories for Schwartz, who was among the 43,416 in attendance on April 21, 1973 when Angle Light upset Secretariat.

“I remember it being crowded,” said Schwartz. “There was a buzz and big noise around Secretariat. I’ve never seen a horse so big in my life. He was huge. He’s still the greatest horse ever. No other horse is comparable.”

Secretariat, the 1972 Horse of the Year, was set to be tested by Sham, who had won the Santa Anita Derby. But it was the unheralded Angle Light, Secretariat’s entry mate, who would pull off a stunning frontrunning upset.

“Sham was sitting second and looking for Secretariat to make his move and because of that he moved too late,” recalled Schwartz. “Angle Light kept on going and won by a head. Sham was second.”

Schwartz said the crowd was stunned at the result.

“Secretariat ran third in the Wood if you can believe it. It was not his day. Later, they said he was sick that day. It just shows that anything can happen,” said Schwartz.

Angle Light, a $15,500 yearling purchase owned by Toronto, Ontario native Edwin Whittaker, had his day in the sun and Secretariat would win the Kentucky Derby next out en route to Triple Crown immortality.

Schwartz comes into Saturday’s event with his own underdog in Brooklyn Strong, a $5,000 purchase at the OBS Spring Sale of Two-Year-Olds in Training. The handsome bay is out of the Medaglia d’Oro mare Riviera Chic, who had produced a pair of winners – Danielle’s Pride and American Mission – from three foals.

“I bought him without asking anybody,” said Schwartz, who usually attends sales with his young trainer in tow. “Maybe Danny shouldn’t have left me alone there.

“I liked his breeding and he ran a 10.2 and I liked the video I saw. Being a New York-bred was definitely a part of it. We live near the track and we can run him there, but I think I would have bought him no matter where he was bred,” added Schwartz. “When he was so cheap I thought I just had to buy the horse. The funny thing is you never get any of the big guys bidding against you when it’s a $5,000 horse.”

Schwartz said he called Velazquez after the purchase and was immediately admonished.

“I called Danny and he said, ‘You bought a $5,000 horse? What did I tell you!’” said Schwartz with a laugh.

Brooklyn Strong has proven to be an astute purchase. After a debut maiden claiming win in September at Delaware Park under Abner Adorno, Brooklyn Strong stepped into stakes company and finished third in the Bertram F. Bongard on October 2 at Belmont with Eric Cancel up.

The gelding redeemed himself when piloted to victory by Jose Ortiz in the Sleepy Hollow on October 24 at Belmont and followed with a neck score engineered by Joel Rosario in the nine-furlong Grade 2 Remsen on December 5 at the Big A, garnering a career-best 94 Beyer Speed Figure and 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points.

Schwartz credits Velazquez for the development of Brooklyn Strong from a modest purchase to a legitimate Derby contender with $195,000 in the bank.

“Danny is like a third son. I can’t imagine a harder worker,” said Schwartz. “He’s a terrific trainer and when he tells me a horse is ready to win, he’s almost always right. He really knows when he has a horse just right.

“I told him this is his breakout year and his chance to show people what he can do,” continued Schwartz. “He got a break getting these horses for so little money and making them good horses. He’s a great evaluator of the talent that he gets. He’s not the type of trainer that can go out and spend $300,000 at a sale. He got the Laoban filly for $15,000 and I got into a lucky spot on my own buying ‘Brooklyn’.”

Manny Franco will pick up the mount on Saturday to become the fifth jockey in as many starts on the young horse and will need to hit the exacta to pick up enough points to jump from 33rd in the Kentucky Derby points standings into one of the 20 available stalls.

Schwartz said he is optimistic of a big effort after watching Known Agenda, who finished third in the Remsen, dominate in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

“I think now more than ever the Derby is wide open, but we have to finish first or second to get there,” said Schwartz. “I’d like to see Franco have him third or fourth on the outside and make his move at the top of the stretch and blow by everybody. That’s been his action and I wouldn’t want to change. I’d love to see him win big but any victory would be fine. I know he can run all day.”

Due to New York State COVID-19 guidelines, Saturday’s Wood Memorial will be conducted without spectators and only a limited number of owners and essential personnel onsite. However, Schwartz said his small group will do their best to make as much noise as the 40,000 fans that attended the 1973 edition.

“If you watch the TV replays of our other races, you can see Danny and I embarrassing ourselves up in the second level,” said Schwartz. “Our little group will be screaming, for sure. It’s a little different for the big owners and big trainers – they’ve seen this before, we haven’t. We react a bit differently. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of excitement. I can’t wait.”