In a word, Vino Rosso's journey to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) has been bumpy.
Back in November, when Vino Rosso lived up to his sharp morning works and won at first asking for owners Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola of St. Elias Stable, the son of Curlin seemed a bona fide Derby candidate. But after a tumultuous third in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) and a fourth in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), the horse named for red wine dropped to a distant fourth behind the likes of Audible, Magnum Moon, and Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Noble Indy in the pecking order among 3-year-olds in trainer Todd Pletcher's talent-laden barn.
All of that changed April 7 when Vino Rosso put the disappointment of his two Tampa Bay Downs losses behind him. Returning to top form, the chestnut colt survived an inquiry for, yes, bumping in the stretch to post a three-length victory over 6-5 favorite Enticed in the $1 million Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2) and give Pletcher a quartet of Derby starters.
"I've got memories of losing in this race at 1-9 (with Uncle Mo in 2011) and winning a photo two years ago with Outwork ," Repole said. "This is a special race for me. I grew up coming to Aqueduct ... and I was involved in one of the biggest upsets in the race. Now I've won two out of three years. That's how it works."
How it worked for Vino Rosso was he received 100 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, punching his ticket to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Coming into the Wood, Vino Rosso had just seven points and was 38th on the leaderboard.
Enticed, who received 40 points for finishing second, already had a Derby berth wrapped up with 63 points coming into the 1 1/8-mile Wood. According to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, the Godolphin homebred will continue on to the Derby.
"I'm sure there will be no change (in Derby plans)," McLaughlin said. "He ran a great race."
Gary and Mary West's Restoring Hope, coming off a maiden win at Santa Anita Park for trainer Bob Baffert, was another 2 1/4 lengths back in third and picked up 20 points. He will need a slew of defections to compete in the opening leg of the Triple Crown.
Firenze Fire, who competed in all four New York preps for the Derby, was fourth, picking up 10 points to bump his total to 39 and put him on the Derby bubble. Having the winner of last year's Champagne Stakes (G1) in the field triggered a $250,000 bonus and pushed the purse to $1 million.
Vino Rosso kept alive Viola's dream of capturing the Run for the Roses in back-to-back years after being a part owner of 2017 winner Always Dreaming.
"It's unrealistic to think about winning the Derby two years in a row," said Viola, who also won the Carter Handicap (G1) with Army Mule on the April 7 card. "But like the horse who won it for us last year, I'll be dreaming about it every day (until May 5)."
In Vino Rosso, Viola, who also owns the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers, will head to Louisville with a much different runner than Always Dreaming, who was no worse than second at any call in the Derby. Vino Rosso figures to be charging from the back of the pack. The son of the Street Cry mare Mythical Bride rallied from sixth in the field of nine to capture the Wood as the 4-1 third choice ($10.40).
"He finished up great. We kept feeling we were seeing a horse with that kind of talent, and he had been training well. We felt the mile and an eighth was something he was looking for, and I think even farther will be better for him. This was the performance we were hoping for," said Pletcher, who notched his fifth win in the Wood.
Old Time Revival, runner-up to Enticed in the Gotham Stakes (G3), sprinted away to a six-length lead after a half-mile in :46.68, but as he shortened stride on the far turn, Enticed and Restoring Hope went by, followed from the outside by Vino Rosso and jockey John Velazquez.
At the top of the stretch, a determined Enticed and a surging Vino Rosso came together as Vino Rosso drifted in a bit and the rivals bumped. After Vino Rosso pulled away in the final furlong and crossed the finish line in 1:49.79, jockey Junior Alvarado on Enticed lodged a claim of foul that was disallowed.
"I got bumped three times. I got pinched on the rail. This was way too much. I didn't even bump him once. I don't know what to say. This is unacceptable. If somebody else rode that way, he would have been taken down. It's not the right thing. I got bumped three times, I got fouled. What else do I need to get?" Alvarado said.
In the eyes of the winning connections, the stewards made the right call.
"There's no question there was some contact. Johnny's interpretation was (when) he came over close to him, and the other horse kind of touched him, he touched him back," Pletcher said. "No question there was contact. I thought it was mutual, but I don't think it affected the outcome of the race."
Vino Rosso, bred by John D. Gunther in Kentucky and bought for $410,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, earned $535,000 for his victory and improved his record to three wins in five starts with career earnings of $620,500.
While the win was the second in the Wood for the trio of Pletcher, Repole and Velazquez, who won the 2016 Wood with Outwork, the victory added to a remarkable partnership. According to Equibase statistics, horses owned, trained, and ridden by the trio have teamed for 30 stakes wins and more than $9 million in earnings entering this year. Velazquez alone had more than 1,600 wins and $139 million in earnings with Pletcher-trained horses entering January.
The Wood has produced 20 winners of the Kentucky Derby, but none since Funny Cide in 2003. In 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus became the last horse to win both races.
Last year's Wood played a key role on the Triple Crown trail as Cloud Computing, who was third, won the Preakness Stakes (G1) in his next start and Irish War Cry, who won the Wood, finished second in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1).