The Wood Memorial played out in similar fashion to the Florida Derby a week earlier, with snail-like early fractions that resulted in a low BRIS Speed rating for the winner. Verrazano wasn't flashy but remained unbeaten, narrowly defeating the fast-charging Normandy Invasion, whose runner-up finish resurrected his Kentucky Derby hopes.
Verrazano netted a 100 BRIS Speed rating, the same figure he received for winning the Tampa Bay Derby on a soft pace. The early splits in the Wood (:49.62 and 1:13.74) were ridiculous considering that three-year-old fillies went in :47.47 and 1:10.95 in the 1 1/8-mile Gazelle earlier on the program.
With Orb earning only a 97 in the Florida Derby, the likely top two betting choices will bring underwhelming last-race Speed ratings into the Kentucky Derby. It's easy to make the case that those numbers weren't true indicators, but hard-line handicappers who take the data at face value won't be swayed: they prefer to play fast horses (on paper) over slow ones and will be going against both on Derby Day.
Goldencents registered a Speed rating worthy of a serious prospect in Saturday's Santa Anita Derby, generating a 106 for his comfortable 1 1/4-length decision. The colt added to a fantastic three-day stretch for co-owner Rick Pitino, who also won a national championship and was inducted into the college basketball Hall of Fame, and Goldencents puts Doug O'Neill, who trained I'll Have Another to a 19-1 upset in 2012, back in the spotlight.
The final round of major preps in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" takes place this Saturday, with the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass each offering points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four finishers. Both races could still play a serious part in the Kentucky Derby equation.
Verrazano was not a captivating winner at Aqueduct, scoring by a diminishing three-quarters of a length, and my first thoughts were not positive: I was willing to knock the forwardly-placed colt for not winning by a wider margin given the slow pace. But in retrospect, that initial assessment seems far too harsh, if not completely wayward.
Verrazano strikes me as a horse that will do whatever's necessary to win and good luck getting past him in the stretch. He did just enough Saturday and I don't think a legitimate pace would've made any difference except for resulting in a much greater Speed rating.
Despite beginning his racing career on New Year's Day, the Todd Pletcher trainee repelled a couple of stiff challenges with the poise of a seasoned veteran Saturday. Vyjack launched the first assault, going after the odds-on favorite nearing the completion of the far turn, and Normandy Invasion came with his run in the lane, closing with massive strides. Those quality rivals took their best shot and weren't getting past Verrazano at any point.
Jockey John Velazquez always appeared to have plenty of horse while hand-riding Verrazano to the wire and the 108 BRIS Late Pace rating is a testament to his mount's fast finish. The Wood served its purpose as a nice building block for the lightly-raced sophomore.
By More Than Ready, Verrazano was a brilliant performer in his first two starts at one turn and his effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles has always been the biggest concern surrounding his Kentucky Derby hopes. He still has to prove it, but I haven't seen any evidence in the Wood or Tampa Bay Derby to suggest that he won't be successful at 10 furlongs.
Normandy Invasion needed a first or second-place finish in the Wood to guarantee him a spot in the Derby field and trainer Chad Brown left no stone uncovered in the colt's preparation: it would've been a massive disappointment to miss the race given the promise Normandy Invasion offered as a two-year-old. The bay son of Tapit raced closer to the marginal Wood pace than usual and his stout finish (114 Late Pace rating) was an encouraging sign for supporters.
However, Normandy Invasion's only victory came in a maiden special weight at Aqueduct and that's not a formula for success at Churchill Downs. Giacomo, a 50-1 upsetter in 2005, is the only Derby winner in the last 40 years that failed to finish first in every previous start against winners (Alysheba was disqualified from the top spot in the 1987 Blue Grass). One can't count his Wood second against him, but Normandy Invasion made a winning move in last year's Remsen before hanging slightly in deep stretch and finishing a nose runner-up.
Normandy Invasion remains a viable candidate to make his presence in the Derby's final furlongs, but a minor award may be a more realistic expectation for the late-running colt.
Vyjack captured his first four starts, including the 1 1/16-mile Gotham on March 2, but he's bred for sprint/middle distances on both sides of his pedigree and longer trips were always going to represent a significant hurdle for the talented gelding. The Rudy Rodriguez charge tasted defeat for the first time while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles in the Wood Memorial, but I loved the tenacity he displayed finishing third by only a length and came away more impressed with him than I was before.
Ten furlongs may be too much to ask, but Vyjack is an intriguing prospect to outrun his pedigree while being completely overlooked in the wagering.
Santa Anita Derby
Goldencents built a solid reputation based upon wins in the Delta Jackpot and Sham Stakes, but his stock took a precipitous drop when weakening to fourth in the March 9 San Felipe. The speedy colt was too headstrong during the early stages that afternoon, but O'Neill and his staff worked on getting him to relax and the preparation paid major dividends in the Santa Anita Derby.
Jockey Kevin Krigger took a stiff hold of his mount entering the first turn and Goldencents settled into a tracking position in second. After being given his cue leaving the far turn, he accelerated to the front and comfortably held runner-up Flashback safe all the way to the wire.
Goldencents could revert back to a front-running style in the Kentucky Derby; there isn't a lot of early speed in the projected field and his best chance is likely wire-to-wire. He deserves kudos for running a big race Saturday at his home track, but Goldencents possesses a dubious pedigree for the 1 1/4-mile distance and I can't envision him being a serious factor against much deeper competition at Churchill Downs.
Flashback, the even-money favorite and only rival of serious note in the short Santa Anita Derby field, exited the race with an injury that will sideline him through the Triple Crown.
Oxbow didn't receive any luck in the draw, getting the far outside post in the 10-horse Arkansas Derby, and it's a recurring theme for a colt that has started from either post 10 or 11 in four of his last five starts. The lone time he drew a decent starting position, post 4 in in January's Lecomte Stakes, Oxbow rolled to an 11 1/2-length victory on the front end.
Gary Stevens takes over the mount and it will be interesting to see the early strategy; Falling Sky will be forwardly-placed to his inside and there's no need to rush forward and show the way. The time for Oxbow to show high speed will be three weeks later in the main event.
Oxbow figures to be prominent turning for home, but I will tab War Academy for the win. He impressed when capturing his two-turn bow with plenty in reserve last out, recording a visually awesome optional claiming win at Santa Anita, and the Arkansas Derby marks his first start in a Derby-qualifying points race. Bob Baffert will have him cranked for his best and War Academy appears capable of another sterling performance.
Overanalyze will be seeking a measure of redemption following a clunker in the Gotham, where he returned in a tough two-turn race off more than a three-month rest, and is certainly eligible to rebound with an improved showing. Den's Legacy is also intriguing; he's been a notch below the elite members of his crop so far, but the hard-trying has placed in four straight starts against graded stakes rivals and could continue to develop into a more formidable runner.
The Blue Grass drew a full field of 14 and features the usual mix of proven turf runners, synthetic specialists and horses that have performed exclusively on dirt.
Rydilluc is the pick despite receiving post 13. The Gary Contessa-trained colt displayed a tremendous stride while easily pocketing his last three starts on turf and has the tactical speed to avoid being caught too wide into the first turn. I expect him to carry his form forward on Polytrack.
My Name Is Michael displayed extremely promising form on Woodbine's Polytrack last year and was bet down as the 3-1 favorite in the Spiral last out, but his odds will skyrocket on Saturday following a dull eighth. Bill Mott gave the colt a work over the local Polytrack last week and will add blinkers on Saturday, and we watched the Hall of Fame trainer orchestrate a complete turnaround in form over the same surface last weekend with Ashland winner Emollient. My Name Is Michael will be included in any multi-race wagers.
Spiral runner-up Uncaptured, the 7-2 morning line favorite, is another logical contender and Footbridge rates an interesting longshot following a nice maiden win at Santa Anita.