Verrazano turned back the challenge of Gotham Stakes (gr. III) winner Vyjack and held off a late-closing Normandy Invasion in a formful edition of the $1 million Wood Memorial (gr. I) April 6 at Aqueduct Racetrack, preserving his undefeated streak by three-quarters of a length while answering the toughest question asked of him to date (VIDEO).
The Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) winner went 1 1/8 miles in a slow 1:50.27 to best a field of nine other sophomores as the 4-5 choice. He registered his fourth straight victory for Let's Go Stable and partners, trainer Todd Pletcher, and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. He earned 100 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and punched his ticket to Louisville one more time.
The Wood Memorial was the first grade I for Let's Go Stable, which owns the bay colt in partnership with Coolmore group of Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier, and Derrick Smith.
"He hasn't done anything wrong so far," said Pletcher. "There's some more preps to go, but I would say right now he's the legitimate Kentucky 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. We'll probably go on April 14.
"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 a little better."
Verrazano was off alertly and tracked behind a pace set by longshot Chrisandthecapper, who eased his way through splits of :24.89 and :49.62 before being quickly passed by the favorite. Having put away the frontrunner, Verrazano ran three-quarters in 1:13.74 and swept into the lane, carrying on in spite of 3-1 second choice Vyjack's attempt to come to him.
"He was already going, and Vyjack came to him, and I looked at him," Velazquez said. "I never hit Verrazano. I was like, he's running good enough that I don't have to hit him. There was nobody on the outside, and by the wire I looked and Normandy Invasion came, and I never even saw that horse. I thought Vyjack was the only one fighting me.
"So I went to hand-ride him and show him the whip and tried to keep his attention because I know he kind of waits, and he's looking at the infield, and I just kind of got his attention. And all of a sudden Normandy Invasion got close at the wire and I never saw him. I didn't hit Verrazano. I didn't want to overdo things. He was doing enough to beat the other horse, anyway."
The winner went a mile in 1:37.72, then hit the wire before 7-2 Normandy Invasion could get closer. Vyjack finished a neck back in third.
"Every race he's learning," Velazquez said. "He's still coming along, and we learn more about him. He does things very easily. This is his last prep before going to the Derby, so hopefully he'll learn a lot from this one."
The race was made official following an inquiry into the break, when the number 10 horse, Freedom Child , was left in the hands of the assistant starter. He was declared a non-starter.
Verrazano, a dark bay son of More Than Ready , returned $3.60, $2.70, and $2.20. Normandy Invasion returned $3.60 and $2.60 while Vyjack paid $2.50. Mr Palmer, Elnaawi, Chrisandthecapper, Quinzieme Monarque, Go Get the Basil, and Always in a Tiz completed the order of finish.
According to Chad Brown, trainer of Normandy Invasion, Fox Hill Farm's sophomore son of Tapit is headed for Louisville as well. Normandy Invasion earned 40 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
"I'm happy with my horse's performance," Brown said. "I'm very grateful he got up for second and got the points, hopefully, to get into the Derby. If the horse comes back good, I don't see any reason why a mile and quarter third off the layoff shouldn't really hit him between the eyes.
"My main concern, as I said all week, was that he gets out of the gate cleaner, and I thought he did. He's never going to be a horse who is going to flash early speed, but at the very least, given how sharp he has been working, he's a horse who should have enough speed to at least adapt to a slow pace. There's no reason why he should be far off a slow pace.
"Javier allowed him to adapt to the slow pace today by warming him up good and giving him a good, patient ride on the inside. He never really panicked. He waited for his seam, he got it, and he was second best today. With another race under his belt, a little added distance, and some racing luck in the Derby, hopefully it will be his turn to get his nose on the line."
Rudy Rodriguez, trainer of Vyjack, said the Derby is still a possibility for Pick Six Racing's previously undefeated Into Mischief colt.
"We were happy the way he ran," Rodriguez said. "The other horse is a nice horse. He placed himself in a very good position. I was hoping the horse on the lead would go a little faster. Vyjack didn't have the kick he had the other day in the Gotham, but we were happy the way he ran. I have to talk to the owner and see what he decides (about the Derby). I think they already booked everything up, so I guess that the plan is to go."
Bred in Kentucky by Emory A. Hamilton out of the Giant's Causeway mare Enchanted Rock, Verrazano is a half brother to stakes winner El Padrino , who ran in last year's Kentucky Derby for Let's Go Stable after winning the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II).
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 of Let's Go Stable, from the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale when consigned by Middlebrook Farm, agent. After the colt's second race, the Tabor group purchased an interest in the horse. He now has earnings of $861,300.
"It feels great," said Bryan Sullivan, co-managing partner of Let's Go Stable. "We had never won a grade I for Let's Go. I'm so happy for Kevin and all our investors. The race was a little weird. We thought that (Freedom Child) would go; he broke a little slow, kinda rushed up.
"They really walked the dog. I think our horse is better when he's put into the race earlier. He's got an incredibly high cruising speed and he kind of puts horses away. 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."