Vyjack secured a likely spot in the Kentucky Derby field when winning Saturday's Gotham, earning 50 points in the new "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring system for the convincing 2 1/4-length decision. After capturing his first three starts in front-running fashion, Vyjack switched gears and closed from off the pace in the 1 1/16-mile race, overcoming a wide trip along the way on Aqueduct's inner track.
The Big A is an unlikely base for a Kentucky Derby winner and Vyjack lacks a favorable pedigree for 1 1/4 miles, but it's easy to admire the way the Rudy Rodriguez-trained gelding keeps proving doubters wrong. He will retain the home-court advantage for his final prep race, the April 6 Wood Memorial.
Sunday's Palm Beach at Gulfstream offered no points on turf, but the impressive winner, Rydilluc, will be given the opportunity earn his way into the Derby field via Polytrack, with the March 23 Spiral at Turfway Park and April 13 Blue Grass at Keeneland both serving as options for the up-and-coming colt. The Gary Contessa charge rates as an intriguing prospect with his big, powerful stride.
Rydilluc will attempt to follow the same route employed by 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom and last year's third-place finisher Dullahan. He must still transfer his form effectively, but Rydilluc is bred for dirt on both sides of his pedigree, with his dam being a close relative of Grade 1 winners El Corredor and Roman Ruler, and the main track at Churchill Downs can play kindly to proven turf/synthetic runners (Horse of the Year Wise Dan is one of many examples). The son of Medaglia d'Oro defeated a nice group of rivals Sunday, crushing the competition for the third straight time.
A pair of unbeaten stars, Verrazano and Flashback, will receive a litmus test this Saturday when they line up for the Tampa Bay Derby and San Felipe, respectively.
All eyes will be on Verrazano, an unraced two-year-old who has made quite a splash in two starts at Gulfstream Park. After debuting on New Year's Day with a 7 3/4-length romp at 6 1/2 furlongs, the Todd Pletcher trainee posted a 16 1/4-length runaway over allowance rivals at a one-turn mile on February 2, earning a whopping 104 BRIS Speed rating for the latter. Those performances look even better given that his beaten rivals came back to post nice wins at Gulfstream in their next outings and Verrazano will cement his status as the early Kentucky Derby favorite if he makes a seamless transition to two turns.
Verrazano displayed plenty of speed in both starts but likes to sit close to the action. I was glad to see Falling Sky, a front-running winner of the February 2 Sam F. Davis at Tampa, scratch out of the Fountain of Youth in favor of the Tampa Bay Derby because an easy wire-to-wire victory would've told us little about Verrazano. We figure to get a good gauge on whether the hype is justified.
Flashback displayed push-button acceleration when opening his career at Hollywood Park in December, drawing off to a 3 1/2-length decision at seven furlongs, but wound up being the lone speed in a four-horse Robert Lewis on February 2, leading all the way en route to a facile 6 1/4-length victory. Look for him to revert to rating tactics as the classy Goldencents shows the way early in the San Felipe.
Trainer Bob Baffert continues to tout Flashback as a serious candidate to win the Kentucky Derby and the dappled gray colt can establish himself as the prohibitive favorite for the April 6 Santa Anita Derby with a strong showing Saturday.
The inside appeared best on the speed-friendly inner track Saturday and Vyjack traveled wide the entire way. He dropped back to 10th, seven lengths behind after a slow opening quarter-mile in 24 seconds, and continued to bide his time as 33-1 pacesetter West Hills Giant got away with surprisingly slow splits of :48 3/5 and 1:12 3/5.
He made some headway rounding the turn but still had plenty to do when arriving at the top of the stretch. Vyjack then responded to the urgings of jockey Joel Rosario, launching a visually impressive move to rally past rivals and win going away under the wire. The slow pace adversely affected his final BRIS Speed rating (99), but it was no surprise to see Vyjack register a 112 Late Pace number for his stout finish.
Vyjack has raced exclusively at Aqueduct, winning his first two attempts sprinting over the main track last fall before gamely scoring in the January 5 Jerome on the inner oval, and will make his first trip outside the friendly confines when he ships to Churchill Downs. The gelding is from the first crop of Into Mischief, who did his best running at middle distances and is already responsible for a number of speedy offspring, and I would prefer to see stamina on the dam side of any Kentucky Derby prospects from the fast-rising sire.
Vyjack's female line is not encouraging. Out of an unraced mare by speed sire Stravinsky, his dam is a half-sister to multiple Grade 3-winning sprinter Disco Rico and this is also the family of champion sprinter Smoke Glacken.
He deserves plenty of kudos for his outstanding performance Saturday, displaying no signs of distance limitations, but I am still not sold on Vyjack. It's best to keep an open mind, though, and Vyjack can elevate his status when stretching out to 1 1/8 miles in the Wood.
Another major development from the Gotham was the clunker turned in by 8-5 favorite Overanalyze, who failed to run back to his Remsen victory last November. It's fair to give him a pass in the first start back -- Remsen runner-up Normandy Invasion also came back with an unplaced finish and will be looking for redemption in his next outing -- but it was disappointing to see Overanalyze offer so little after avoiding early trouble and receiving a perfect trip up close to the slow pace.
Elnaawi experienced a rough journey in his first start against winners but acquitted himself nicely in a third-place finish. The well-bred son of Street Sense broke from the outside and was fighting his rider after being bumped and forced to steady in tight quarters during the early stages, but he got on track late to just miss second and is eligible to keep moving forward for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
West Hills Giant got away to an easy lead and carried his speed to a runner-up finish at long odds, but the New York-bred will be hard-pressed to run back to this performance next time.