Verrazano won the Wood Memorial Stakes on Saturday and stamped himself as a Kentucky Derby favorite (Photo courtesy Coglianese Photos/Adam Mooshian).
There are still two more 100-point maximum and a pair of 20-point max preps remaining before the first Saturday in May arrives, but the main storylines for the Kentucky Derby were pretty much put in place this weekend.
Verrazano will be the favorite.
Orb will be the second choice.
Oh, there could be a swap in that order. Especially if jockey John Velazquez, who rides both of them, can recover from a broken rib and chipped wrist bone suffered in a spill Sunday at Aqueduct and elects to stick with Orb. But it seems a safe bet that more money will side with the unbeaten, speedy Verrazano than the late-running Orb, who seems a better fit for the Derby’s grueling mile and a quarter distance.
After that, perhaps Revolutionary will be the third choice. Perhaps.
Yet in the days that lead up to the May 4 Derby, the focus of attention will be largely centered on Verrazano and Orb. With the D. Wayne Lukas-trained duo of Oxbow and Will Take Charge and Bob Baffert’s War Academy the biggest names in action this coming weekend in the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes, it’s impossible to imagine something happening that could eclipse the two big stars.
Verrazano most likely wrapped up at least morning line favorite honors when he showed his class in the Wood Memorial on Saturday. Challenged in mid-stretch by another unbeaten Derby prospect, Vyjack, Verrazano fended off that bid and edged away to win by three quarters of a length over Normandy Invasion.
Slow early fractions no doubt helped Verrazano’s cause, but that moment when Vyjack ranged up alongside him approaching the 3/16ths pole was indeed an acid test for the Todd Pletcher-trained son of More Than Ready. Verrazano was not seriously challenged in his first three starts and to repulse a horse as accomplished as Vyjack says a great deal about his heart.
Whether he can handle a mile and a quarter is another matter. But with his tactical speed, he can hover close enough to the lead to stay out of trouble in the early stages and might be the one to catch in the final furlong.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong so far,” Pletcher said after the Wood. “There’s some more preps to go, but I would say right now he’s the legitimate (Derby) favorite. The key now is to go to Churchill and get over that track well. Churchill can be a very peculiar surface, and a lot of horses don’t handle it.
“I think he’s still learning. He has a tendency to idle a little bit and wait on company down the lane. I thought that today he did that a little bit. It was the first time he had horses real close to him at the finish of a race, so hopefully every step we make is a learning experience for him and he learns to polish off these races off a little better.”
One interesting footnote involves Verrazano’s other three starts. All of them came at three and no one has won the Derby without a start at two since 1882, which brings you back to the administration of President Chester Alan Arthur. While there’s some validity in the notion that a lack of seasoning at two and jamming in races at three can backfire on Derby Day, Verrazano’s debut came on Jan. 1. Had that maiden race at Gulfstream been carded on Dec. 31 instead of Jan.1, the 131-year-old statistic would not be mentioned.
Will a 24-hour delay really be the deciding factor between winning and losing the Derby? Probably not.
More likely the deciding factor for him will be the last of those 10 furlongs in the Derby, which could benefit a closer like Florida Derby winner Orb.
ORB WINNING THER FLORIDA DERBY
Photo credit Coglianese Photos/Courtney Heeney
And while top billing was settled for the Derby, the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby did present a few other interesting options for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
The Chad Brown-trained Normandy Invasion will be in Louisville following a runner-up finish in the Wood. By hitting the wire a neck ahead of Vyjack for second, it provided him with 40 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby chase and gave him a total of 44. He’s now 12th in the battle for one of 20 spots in the starting gate and unless a few trainers turn their horses into trotters and run them every weekend for the rest of this month he is set for the Run for the Roses.
Closer to the pace than usual on a day that favored speed for much of the day, Normandy Invasion showed a nice closing kick and might be someone who relishes that final furlong on Derby Day.
“I think he ran great yesterday, and he came out of the race good,” Brown said on Sunday. “He did everything I expected him to do except win, but just short of that I thought he ran great “He had drawn outside every start in his career – 9 or 10 (post position) – and he finally drew inside and took advantage of it by saving ground. I thought the horse broke clean out of the gate. He was able to lay closer to a slow pace than he had in the past. It really helped him. I think he learned a lot from it, and we learned a lot from the horse. He ran as we suspected. He doesn’t need to be that far away.”
Vyjack suffered his first defeat in the Wood, but turned in an effort that gained some luster Sunday when trainer Rudy Rodriguez said he found some mucous when Vyjack was scoped after the race.
“He came back good, he ate good, he walked good this morning,” Rodriguez said. “There was some mucous when we scoped him, nothing bad. I don’t want to use that as an excuse. I’m proud of the way he ran. It’s like human beings. We get a little cold for a couple of days. We’ll clean it up, we’ll check him out again, and move forward. He ran a good race against a good horse.”
While Rodriguez shrugged off what happened to his horse, that equine version of a cold may left Vyjack at something less than 100 percent for the Wood. Whether that was 99 percent or 80 percent will be reflected in the Derby, where Vyjack might be an interesting wagering proposition at 100 percent health.
On the other coast, last year the Santa Anita Derby produced the Kentucky Derby winner in I’ll Have Another and his trainer, Doug O’Neill, will be back in Louisville with another Santa Anita Derby winner, this time with Goldencents.
Owned in part by Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino – who a had pretty memorable day on the basketball court and racetrack – Goldencents pressed the pace of Super Ninety Nine, took over in the stretch and held off Flashpoint by 1 ¼ lengths.
Both Goldencents and Flashpoint have the kind of speed that should keep them near the lead in the Derby, making for an interesting pace scenario.
If things don’t get too crazy on the front end, one of them might be the one who makes a strong move on the final turn and has a bull’s-eye on his back in the last yards.
We’ll know more in four week’s time.
But for now we’ll have to be content with knowing who will be the stars heading into racing’s biggest show, and that’s not a bad way for the hype to start.