All the buzz April 6 at Aqueduct Racetrack will be about two of racing's unbeaten 3-year-olds, Verrazano and Vyjack, who attempt to take that final step on the long road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) when they face off in the $1 million Wood Memorial (gr. I).
Both horses in all probability have already qualified for the Derby, with 50-point victories under their belt (Verrazano in the grade II Tampa Bay Derby and Vyjack in the grade III Gotham), so now it's all about proving which one is the potential superstar and the frontrunner for favoritism in the Kentucky Derby. Still, their connections also realize they have to proceed with caution and try to keep their horses from peaking a race too early; it's a fine line between becoming top dog and saving something for the first Saturday in May.
But the Wood could be far from a two-horse race if one of nine other talented contenders entered in the 1 1/8-mile race chooses Saturday to bust out. For them, there is no holding back. While Verrazano, the 4-5 favorite on the morning line, and Vyjack, the 4-1 second choice, have the luxury of using the Wood first and foremost as a prep, there are others in desperation mode who have to finish first or second in order to earn enough points to make the Derby cut.
Scheduled as the 11th on a 12-race card with an approximate post time of 6:28 p.m. EDT, the Wood awards its winner 100 qualifying points for the Derby field. Runners who need those points include Normandy Invasion, Elnaawi, Mr Palmer, and Always in a Tiz. For them it's all or nothing.
Even though getting past both Verrazano and Vyjack is not going to be an easy task, on paper it looks as if both horses will have to run big in order to keep their unbeaten streak alive.
"Facing Vyjack and some of the others is going to be a tall task," said Verrazano's co-owner Bryan Sullivan, who operates Let's Go Stable in partnership with his brother-in-law Kevin Scatuorchio. "We're trying not to get caught up in everything and are just concentrating on our horse. He's doing very well since the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II), and we're just looking for a good run from him. Tampa was a step up in class and got him used to new surroundings, but now he's got to keep stepping up."
Sullivan continues to be amazed by the son of More Than Ready, who has won his three career starts by a combined 27 lengths.
"I've been around Todd (trainer Pletcher) for 15 years and I haven't seen a horse who keeps his condition and trains like this horse does," Sullivan said. "He has a great mind, which he gets from More Than Ready. He sleeps a lot and eats a lot. This is the position you want to be in. If you can't get excited by this you shouldn't be in this business."
Of course, the so-called Apollo curse always pops up when you have a leading Derby contender who did not race as a 2-year-old. The last Derby winner who did not race at 2 was Apollo in 1892. Verrazano missed by one day of escaping the curse, having made his career debut on Jan. 1.
"We had a 45-minute conversation with Todd about that before this horse started," Sullivan said. "He was ready to race Dec. 19, but Todd wanted to run him longer than six furlongs and wait for the next condition book. He asked us, 'Is 13 days going to stop him from winning the Derby?' At some point someone is going break (the curse), and we'd love it to be us."
Vyjack's owner, David Wilkenfeld of Pick Three Racing, realizes this ultimately is a prep for the Kentucky Derby—but he is confident his horse is capable of winning and that is their objective.
"Obviously, I go into every race with the expectation we can win and this is no exception," he said. "We're not looking at this as a prep. He worked terrifically and we're expecting him to run well. If he doesn't we'll have no excuses other than we ran into a horse faster than us."
As much as he wants to win, Wilkenfeld still would prefer not having a taxing race. But he realizes that may be difficult with Verrazano in the mix.
"I really don't want to have too hard a race before the Derby, but it is what it is," the owner said. "He's shown races don't take a lot out of him. It'll be a good test for both horses. Verrazano is the best horse we've faced, but I think Vyjack will be the best horse he's ever faced. Verrazano has been very vey impressive and has top level connections, and has run at the premier meet at Gulfstream. We're more blue collar. But it's all positive to me."
As far as strategy goes, Verrazano drew post 8, which should allow John Velazquez to place Verrazano where he pleases and keep out of trouble on the inside. Vyjack will break from post 5, which also is an excellent spot, and Joel Rosario will be able to see how the race unfolds inside and outside him.
Of the others, Normandy Invasion, Elnaawi, and Mr Palmer look to be the most serious threats. All need to finish first or second to secure a spot in the Derby, and all three will be coming from off the pace hoping for some luck avoiding traffic. Always in a Tiz, who was third beaten a neck by Will Take Charge in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park, will race with blinkers for the first time and could be an interesting longshot. He also gets the services of Calvin Borel, who won three editions of the Kentucky Derby from 2007 to 2010.
Two key pace factors will be a pair of maiden winners. Chrisandthecapper, an 11 1/2-length winner going six furlongs at Aqueduct March 9, breaks from the rail under Jose Lezcano, while Freedom Child, who wired his field by 5 1/4 lengths going 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream Park March 10, breaks from the far outside for Tom Albertrani and gets Lasix for the first time.
Other than Verrazano's 101 Beyer figure, the highest last-out Beyer actually belongs to Go Get the Basil, who earned a 94, getting beat a nose in an allowance/optional claimer on the inner track March 7.
$1 million Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I, Race 11, Approximate post time 6:28 p.m. EDT), 3YOs, 1 1/8 miles (dirt)
PP, Horse, Jockey, Trainer, Odds
1. Chrisandthecapper (KY), J. Lezcano, J Servis, 30-1
2. Normandy Invasion (KY), J. Castellano, C C Brown, 5-1
3. Quinzieme Monarque (KY), I.Ortiz Jr., T Albertrani, 30-1
4. Elnaawi (KY), E. Castro, K P McLaughlin, 12-1
5. Vyjack (KY), J. Rosario, R R Rodriguez, 4-1
6. Mr Palmer (KY), J. Alvarado, W I Mott, 12-1
7. Always in a Tiz (KY), C.H. Borel, D A Schettino, 15-1
8. Verrazano (KY), J.R. Velazquez, T A Pletcher, 4-5
9. Go Get the Basil (NY), J.L. Ortiz, R A Violette, Jr., 30-1
10. Freedom Child (KY), E. Trujillo, T Albertrani, 30-1 All carry 123 pounds Equipment Change: #7, Always in a Tiz, Blinkers On