January 20, 2017

Wood Memorial a battle of unbeatens in Verrazano, Vyjack

Last updated: 4/3/13 5:45 PM











Verrazano handled a deeper surface successfully in the Tampa Bay Derby

(Tom Cooley Photography)

In the unscientific polls that were the three Kentucky Derby Future Wagers,
horseplayers across the country expressed the belief that Verrazano was the
single individual wagering interest most likely to be draped with roses on the
first Saturday in May. A confirmation of that opinion is four weeks away, but
the lightly-raced colt can build on an already growing bandwagon of support with
a victory in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million
Wood Memorial.

The highlight of the spring, main-track session at Aqueduct, the 1 1/8-mile
Wood Memorial highlights a blockbuster 12-race card that features four other
graded stakes.

Undefeated and not seriously tested in three starts, Verrazano is the latest
Todd Pletcher-trained three-year-old to star in Aqueduct’s most significant
classic prep. Eskendereya was a romping winner of the Wood in 2010 before a
career-ending injury derailed his Kentucky Derby hopes. Juvenile champion Uncle
Mo suffered his first career setback in the 2011 Wood and was later kept out of
the Derby due to illness. Last year, Gemologist maintain his undefeated mark
with a narrow victory over Alpha, but was subsequently unplaced in the Derby and
Haskell Invitational and was retired.

“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.”










Vyjack stayed red hot through a long, cold winter at Aqueduct

(NYRA/Adam Coglianese)

Verrazano’s most serious rival Saturday, Vyjack, is also undefeated. While
the favorite basked in the Florida sunshine, Vyjack toughened it out through a
long New York winter, adding victories in the Grade 2 Jerome and Grade 3 Withers
to earlier scores in the Traskwood overnight stakes and a maiden race.

While the Jerome finish was a bit tight, Vyjack has generally enjoyed more
significant margins of victory. The Gotham proved to be a good education for the
Into Mischief gelding, who dropped back to 10th early, got dirt kicked in his
face, yet rallied to win impressively going away by 2 1/4 lengths.

The results of the Wood Memorial figure to make or break the Kentucky Derby
hopes of the rest field, all of whom would likely need at least a second-place
finish to punch a ticket to Louisville based on the Derby’s new points system
that determines eligibility. Most significantly affected is Normandy Invasion,
who ran impressively to finish second by a nose in the Grade 2 Remsen in
November but then threw in a dud when fifth in the Grade 2 Risen Star in his
three-year-old bow February 23. A return to his best form puts him squarely in
the mix for the win.

“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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