NEW YORK — Even Todd Pletcher figures he has the Kentucky Derby favorite after Verrazano won the $1 million Wood Memorial and kept his record perfect through four races.
“Nothing seems to faze him,” the nation’s leading trainer said Saturday after his 3-year-old colt held off Normandy Invasion by three-quarters of a length with Vyjack another neck back in his final prep before the May 4 Derby.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong so far. There’s some more preps to go, but I would say right now he’s the legitimate favorite.”
He won’t get too many arguments, but the result leaves winning jockey John Velazquez with a tough Derby decision — stay with Verrazano or Orb, the Florida Derby winner he’s been riding who also is a leading contender.
“We will see how the horses come back,” Velazquez said. “We all know I had three years back-to-back with the favorite leading to the Derby and none of the three horses made it (Quality Road, Eskendereya and Uncle Mo). So I hope the people give me the opportunity to watch the horses work, and then we’ll make a decision later on. I’d be very stupid if I made a decision right now.”
Sweeping into the lead around the far turn, Verrazano turned back Vyjack and then Normandy Invasion, who likely earned enough qualifying points to make it to the Derby.
“Javier rode a terrific race, staying closer,” Normandy Invasion’s trainer Chad Brown said of jockey Javier Castellano. “I’m very grateful he got up for second, got the points, hopefully, to get into the Derby.”
Verrazano, the 4-5 favorite in the 10-horse field, raced comfortably behind pacesetter Chrisandthecapper before taking charge on the turn and winning by the closest margin of his brief but so far brilliant career. He won his first three starts by a combined 27 lengths, including the Tampa Bay Derby in his last race before the Wood.
It’s the third Wood win in the past four years for Pletcher, who won it with Eskendereya in 2010 and Gemologist last year. Like Verrazano, Gemologist went to the Derby unbeaten, where he finished 16th.
Pletcher is hoping for a much better result in four weeks, when he will look to add another Derby win to his first one, with Super Saver in 2010.
“This race was not only a building block but a very significant race … he handled everything well,” Pletcher said of the Wood. “When you have horses like this, there’s only one result that’s satisfying, so there’s a little more pressure in these situations. It’s more of a relief after the race than sometimes a celebration, but that’s a position you want to be in.”
Verrazano covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.27, and returned $3.60, $2.70 and $2.20. Normandy Invasion paid $3.60 and $2.60 and Vyjack, the second choice at 3-1, returned $2.50 to show.
Mr Palmer was fourth, followed by Elnaawi, Chrisandthecapper, Quinzieme Monarque, Go Get the Basil and Always in a Tiz. Freedom Child remained in an assistant starter’s hands when the starting gate opened and was declared a nonstarter by New York racing officials. He broke late and never had a chance of contending.
The 20-horse field for the Derby will be determined for the first time by qualifying points. Verrazano now has 150 after earning 100 for his Wood win and is tied with Orb as the top point-getter so far; Normandy Invasion earned 40 points for second and is likely to get in with 44 points; and Vyjack added 20 points to give him 70 and lock up his spot.
In the other Derby prep Saturday, Goldencents won the Santa Anita Derby, with Flashback second and Super Ninety Nine third. Goldencents is co-owned by Rick Pitino, who guided Louisville to a win over Wichita State later in the Final Four later in the evening.
Verrazano, named for the bridge that connects the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, was purchased for $250,000 by Kevin Scatuorchio and Bryan Sullivan, brothers-in-law and managing partners Let’s Go Stable. After the colt’s second race, Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith purchased an interest in the horse.
Sullivan said the slow pace made things a bit dicey, but believes his horse is better when he races closer to the lead.
“He’s got an incredibly high cruising speed and he kinds of puts horses away,” Sullivan said. “It almost set up like a turf race; then, all of a sudden, it was a sprint home. He still hung in and dug and fought. I’m glad he got a fight. We’re happy to move forward. Anything can happen at Churchill but this kind of validates us.”
In earlier races at the Big A, Swagger Jack ($33.60) caught Sahara Sky in the stretch and won the Carter Handicap by three-quarters of a length; Declan’s Warrior ($26.40) edged Clearly Now by a head in the seven-furlong BayShore for 3-year-olds; Close Hatches ($4.50) won the Gazelle for 3-year-old fillies by 3 1/4 lengths over Princess of Sylmar; and Withgreatpleasure ($30.60) beat favorite My Wandy’s Girl by three-quarters of a length in the Ruffian Handicap for older fillies and mares.