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Wood Memorial a battle of unbeatens in Verrazano, Vyjack

  • Verrazano won for the third time in as many starts 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."

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.

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