Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire
Trainer Todd Pletcher’s rather synchronized march to the Kentucky Derby took a somewhat unexpected left turn last weekend when his undefeated juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby ran second in the Holy Bull.
On Saturday, Pletcher regained his stride.
The perennial money leader won a stakes at Aqueduct and an allowance race at Gulfstream with 3-year-olds who were last seen breaking their maidens in impressive fashion.
Revolutionary took the more important of the two races, the $200,000 Withers at the Big A. Yet the mere fact that Verrazano, who captured a non-winners of 1 allowance race, is being mentioned in the same breath as a stakes winner speaks volumes about the quality of his performance.
There are no guarantees either will make it to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May, but in the weeks ahead, when the Derby trail heads into increasingly important phases, it would be no surprise if either or both blossom into major contenders.
They were that impressive on Saturday.
First came Let's Go Stable’s Verrazano. A winner by nearly eight lengths in his career debut on New Year’s Day at Gulfstream, the son of More Than Ready won by more than double that margin in his first start against winners. He was 16 ¼ lengths clear at the wire, covering the mile in a sizzling 1:34.80 with a final furlong in a quick 12.47 seconds – and he did it under slightest of urging from jockey John Velazquez.
While the race showcased the colt’s raw talent, the timing of it leaves Pletcher three months to not only get him ready to run a mile and a quarter in the Derby but to win a stakes and earn enough points to secure a spot in the field for the Kentucky Derby. Where and when that happens is still in a state of flux – that’s to be expected when a trainer has 29 Triple Crown nominees – yet Pletcher’s reaction to Verrazano’s victory indicates graded stakes company is the next stop on the road to Louisville.
“That was about as impressive as you’ll see one run,” said Pletcher, whose horse will most likely need a win or a second in one of the upcoming 17 Kentucky Derby Championship Series preps to secure a spot in the field. “We were encouraged going into (the race) and even more so coming out. He certainly earned the right to step up into a big one, but we have to figure out the timing of it.”
Revolutionary’s win, on paper at least, could not match the sizzle of Verrazano’s triumph. He won by a head over Escapefromreality, a 16-1 shot who had finished second in a non-descript New York State-bred allowance race in his previous start.
But more than the margin of victory or the meager time of 1:44.32 for the mile and a sixteenth was the manner in which Revolutionary overcame a slew of obstacles to reach the winner’s circle. What was supposed to be an easy jaunt to the finish line for an odds-on, 3-4 favorite turned out to be anything but.
Revolutionary came into the Withers off a huge effort in a maiden win over Aqueduct’s winterized inner-track on Dec. 28. After starting his career with two thirds and a second, the son of War Pass exploded to win by 8 ½ lengths in his final start at two.
After registering a Beyer speed figure that day which compares favorably with the figures posted by Holy Bull winner Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby, Revolutionary was pointed to the Grade 3 Withers and a chance to pick up some seemingly easy points in the Kentucky Derby Point Standings.
Trouble, though, reared its head at the start when Valid, who broke just to the inside him, stumbled coming out of the gate and nearly fell. Jockey Javier Castellano took a hold of Revolutionary and after a half-mile in a moderate 48.18 seconds, they were last in the field of eight.
The WinStar Farms colt started to move up along the rail on the turn, but could not squeeze through a tight hole inside of Escapefromreality and Castellano had to check. He guided Revolutionary outside the eventual runner-up but did not give in to the temptation to swing the favorite widest of all on the final turn.
At the top of the stretch, with a line of horses in front of him, Castellano seemed eager to tip outside, but then darted over to the rail. Revolutionary appeared to be boxed in, then fate intervened. When Escapefromreality surged to the front, it gave Revolutionary the seam he needed to slip through. Accelerating in eye-opening fashion, Revolutionary split Escapefromreality and the rail-hugging Siete de Oros and shot past them to put his neck in front at the wire.
An educational effort? Call it a doctorate’s degree in facing and overcoming adversity – a trait that could come in quite handy a few months from now at Churchill Downs.
“This race was worth three in terms of education,” said Elliott Walden, President, CEO and racing manager of WinStar Farm.
“When you’re looking at a race like the Derby,” he added, “to get that type of experience is invaluable.”
Walden said Revolutionary would most likely be shipped to Florida, while the next step is plotted. The victory was worth 10 points in the points standings, leaving Revolutionary tied for 12th in chase to finish among the top 20 and qualify for the Derby.
Down the road, with 19 preps to go, Walden did not voice a concern about finding the right steppingstone prep - even though Pletcher could stock a few stakes with nothing but the stable’s 3-year-olds.
“Certainly it would be best for Todd to keep his horses separated and it wouldn’t make sense for us to run against a stablemate that might be better than us,” Walden said. “There’s a lot to sort out. But the good part is that there are so many races out there that there’s no reason for any us to bump into each other until the Derby.”
Now they have company in Revolutionary and Verrazano.
Business is clearly back to normal for Todd Pletcher.