Wood Memorial a battle of unbeatens in Verrazano, Vyjack
"Eskendereya's performance in the Wood was extremely impressive, as was Gemologist last year, when Alpha headed him, so we're hoping for more of the same," Pletcher said. "Anytime you have a favorite for a race like the Wood Memorial, you're hoping everything goes well. Having currently the early favorite for the Derby is obviously on your mind, but you have to stay focused on doing what you would normally do for horses pointing to races and not get caught up in the big picture too much."
Getting a later start to his racing career than the aforementioned colts, Verrazano has still packed quite a wallop since a scintillating 7 3/4-length debut score on New Year's Day at Gulfstream. Stretching out from 6 1/2 furlongs to a mile in his first allowance test February 2, Verrazano turned in an even more emphatic performance with a 16 1/4-length demolition of his opposition.
Stepping up in class for the March 9 Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, a two-turn 1 1/16-mile test over the deeper Tampa Bay Downs oval, Verrazano bobbled slightly at the start but recovered to rate a close-up second through the opening quarter. Seizing control approaching the half, Verrazano eventually opened up under very little encouragement to win by three lengths.
"He's been a rare horse who's been able to go from a maiden on January 1 to the Derby favorite on the first of April, which you don't see very often," said Pletcher of Verrazano, named by owner Bryan Sullivan after the bridge that connects Staten Island with Brooklyn, which was named after Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano. "He's been able to handle everything we've thrown at him so far and now we have another step to go. We're optimistic as he continues to develop he'll be able to continue to handle his assignments."
"He came out of the race (at Fair Grounds) in good shape," trainer Chad Brown said. "He probably needed that race for the last bit of fitness after the freshening. He's very fit right now, so I expect him to move forward off the race. We're confident he likes the track (at Aqueduct) -- it takes away one element of guesswork."
Among the late bloomers in the field who could earn a large share is Elnaawi, the Shadwell-owned son of Street Sense who finished 2 3/4 lengths third to Vyjack in last month's Gotham, his first race on Lasix and over a fast track.
"With Elnaawi, it's neat this year because he wants to be where we're at now," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's assistant, Art Magnuson. "We're not pressuring him to be on a page he doesn't want to be on. It's stress free. He's come along, he's maturing, he's handling the training, handling the races, he's sound, everything is very, very good with him."
Always in a Tiz, more than five lengths behind Vyjack in the December 9 Traskwood at seven furlongs, kicked off his Derby prep season at Oaklawn with a close third in the January 21 Smarty Jones. However, the Tiznow colt was found to be sick after a retreating fifth-place effort in the Grade 3 Southwest. Always in a Tiz will add blinkers for the Wood.
Another showing significant upside of late is Mr Palmer, a Bill Mott-trained Pulpit colt. Winless in five outings at two, Mr Palmer finally broke through with a neck maiden score over the inner dirt in mid-February and last time romped to a 3 1/2-length decision in the nine-furlong Private Terms at Laurel.
Completing the field of 10 are New York-bred allowance winner Go Get the Basil and maiden winners Chrisandthecapper, Quinzieme Monarque and Freedom Child.
Reconstituted as a Kentucky Oaks prep this season following its demotion from Grade 1 to Grade 2 status, the $250,000 Gazelle attracted a field of six to go 1 1/8 miles. Todd Pletcher will have the favorite in this one as well as Princess of Sylmar seeks to build on a resume that includes blowout wins in the Busanda and Busher in her last two starts.
Walkwithapurpose invades from Maryland, where the Candy Ride filly has virtually run out of competition after romping in the Caesar's Wish, Wide Country and Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship in her last three. Also looking strong in this is the Juddmonte-owned Close Hatches, who followed up a come-from-behind, seven-length maiden score at Gulfstream with a wire-to-wire allowance vcitory at the same track last time.
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