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Verrazano vaults into tie atop Kentucky Derby point standings

  • Verrazano (Tom Cooley Photography)

With his dominating three-length victory in Saturday's Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, Verrazano earned 50 points in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" point standings, vaulting into a first-place tie and virtually assuring himself a spot in the Run for the Roses on May 4 at Churchill Downs.

Ive Struck a Nerve, the upset winner of the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on February 23, had led the standings with 51 points, but was taken off the Kentucky Derby trail after sustaining an ankle injury during a Saturday morning workout.

Trainer Todd Pletcher said Verrazano's next start could come in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 30 at Gulfstream Park, the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 6 at Aqueduct or the Grade1 Arkansas Derby on April 13 at Oaklawn.

Second-place Tampa Bay Derby finisher Java's War earned 20 points to climb to eighth place with 22 points. Falling Sky, the third-place finisher and previously the winner of the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, picked up 10 points and is tied for ninth with 20. Dynamic Sky received five points for fourth and is 13th with 13.

Verrazano's time of 1:43 4/5 for the 1 1/16-mile race earned him a 100 BRIS Speed rating -- below the 104 he earned for a one-turn, one-mile allowance/optional claiming victory at Gulfstream on February 2, but still laudatory considering the circumstances.

In addition to racing around two turns and facing stakes competition for the first time, Verrazano stumbled at the break, grabbing a quarter on his right front leg and opening a small cut.

He recovered in a flash under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez and, by the time the field headed up the backstretch, was in prime striking position outside Falling Sky. They traded the lead for a spell, but most observers had the expectation Verrazano could take the lead at will and he did so for good approaching the far turn.

Pletcher said he did not anticipate the grabbed quarter would impede Verrazano's training.

Java's War took advantage of a relatively quick pace to rally from last place for second, while never posing a threat to Verrazano. Falling Sky held on well for third.

Falling Sky's connections were not discouraged by the outcome.

"Obviously, Verrazano looks to be very strong, and we went toe-to-toe with him quite a way," trainer John Terranova II said. "Falling Sky came out of the race great, and now we're going to put our heads together and figure out a plan for his next start. The Arkansas Derby is a good possibility, but it still isn't etched in stone."

And if that entails meeting Verrazano again?

"We certainly hope we're going in the same direction as him," Terranova added.

Jockey Jose Espinoza, while acknowledging Verrazano was the best horse in the race, said he would welcome another shot at the de facto Kentucky Derby favorite.

"We had about the same kind of trip as we had in the Sam F. Davis, but this time I had company early," Espinoza said.

"I knew (Velazquez) was on the best horse, but I just tried to make my horse run the best race he could. (Verrazano) had a perfect trip; he was on the outside and ran free all the way. I had the pressure because I was on the inside. I think with a better post position (Falling Sky broke from the outside No. 9 post), he's going to be better next time.

"I can't wait to race against Verrazano again, with him looking like the best horse in the country," Espinoza added.

Kenny McPeek, the trainer of Java's War, and jockey Willie Martinez found much to like from their colt's effort. The Tampa Bay Derby was only his second race on dirt, and his first taste of competition since a sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on November 24 at Churchill Downs.

McPeek had told the audience at Tampa Bay's Morning Glory Club Show on Saturday not to leave Java's War off their tickets. His rally under jockey Martinez was strong and visually impressive, but he was barely cutting into Verrazano's lead down the lane.

"No complaints," said McPeek, who indicated Java's War's next start would likely occur in the Group 2 U.A.E. Derby on March 30 at Meydan in Dubai or the Grade 1 Blue Grass on April 13 at Keeneland.

Martinez, who was in saddle aboard Java's War for the first time in the Tampa Bay Derby, could have the return mount if Java's War goes in the U.A.E. Derby as he is expected to travel to Dubai the final weekend of March to ride Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Trinniberg on the Dubai World Cup card.

"I was surprised at how small a horse he is, but when I called on him down the backside he was puffing up like a big horse and gave me that spurt. If everything stays in good order, he is going to be a horse to watch for," Martinez said.

"Obviously, we were very happy with his effort," he added. "There is no telling at this point what kind of horse Verrazano is; before the race, I said he would either win by a mile or get beat by a mile, because you never know about a horse coming to run on this surface for the first time. He showed his true talent and it looks like he is the best three-year-old in the country right now, but you never know what May will bring."

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