Verrazano passed his first stakes test in the Tampa Bay Derby. It wasn't the tour-de-force of his previous start, a 16 1/4-length romp over allowance rivals at Gulfstream Park, but the three-length decision served its purpose.

Trainer Todd Pletcher is focused upon getting his charge to the first Saturday in May and doesn't need Verrazano peaking too early, especially when the main concern is the 1 1/4-mile distance. The bay colt easily handled his first attempt at two turns Saturday and remains an imposing presence in the Kentucky Derby picture.

Hear the Ghost emerged late in Saturday's San Felipe at Santa Anita, rallying to catch Flashback, and rates as a promising candidate for Jerry Hollendorfer. Flashback also ran well while suffering his first defeat.

The Rebel Stakes takes center stage this weekend in the new "Road to the Kentucky Derby" scoring system. It's the next-to-last round in the first leg of the championship portion, awarding points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to the first four finishers, and a full field is expected for the 1 1/16-mile race at Oaklawn Park, including Super Ninety Nine, Oxbow, Treasury Bill and Delhomme.

Tampa Bay Derby

After stumbling slightly at the start, Verrazano proved a little headstrong in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby, rushing forward to engage the front-running Falling Sky before the conclusion of the first turn. Jockey Johnny Velazquez kept his mount well off the rail while under a stiff hold and Verrazano settled into stride as he showed the way down the backstretch on a short lead.

The outcome was never in doubt as Verrazano rounded the far turn full of run and accelerated clear in upper stretch. Velazquez was able to gear down late on the well-built sophomore, winning with seemingly plenty in reserve, and Verrazano registered a respectable 100 BRIS Speed rating as well as 97 Late Pace figure.

Verrazano hails from a Giant's Causeway mare, but detractors were quick to classify the son of More Than Ready as being more speed-influenced after his first two starts at one turn. The Tampa Bay Derby didn't resolve questions about his effectiveness at longer distances, but it was a positive step in that regard.

Tampa is known as a tricky track for shippers and Verrazano traveled well in his first appearance outside of Gulfstream. He won convincingly despite a rough start, sustaining a small cut to his foot when he grabbed a quarter stumbling out of the gate, and galloped out strongly after the wire. Verrazano is expected to recover quickly for his next appearance, most likely the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial on April 6, which provides a four-week rest and another four-week interim prior to the Kentucky Derby.

The final prep is important for the talented colt -- Verrazano likes to race close to the action with his tactical speed but a willingness to relax during the early stages appears key to his further development. He's the horse to beat right now and can solidify his status as the Derby favorite in the Wood.

Runner-up Java's War was the only contestant to make up any ground from off the pace. After rating in last, he launched a visually-impressive move on the far turn to reach third turning for home and continued to advance in the stretch while never threatening the winner. The race set up well for him with solid early fractions and the Kenny McPeek-trained colt still has much to prove, but it was a much-improved effort considering how dismally he performed in his previous outing, a well-beaten sixth in the Kentucky Jockey Club last November.

A stakes winner on turf and third in the Breeders' Futurity on Polytrack, the late-running son of War Pass was making only his second dirt start in the Tampa Bay Derby. Java's War will now return to a synthetic surface, utilizing a roundabout method in hopes of qualifying by shipping to Dubai for the March 30 U.A.E. Derby. The Tapeta race offers the same points (100-40-20-10) as the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby.

San Felipe

Hear the Ghost received an ideal set-up in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, with Flashback hooking up early with Goldencents through a protracted speed duel in :45 4/5 and 1:09 4/5, and started picking up the front-runners in the stretch, closing boldly late to win going away by a half-length.

The gelding made his first two starts at six furlongs, winning his career debut on December 15 before a rallying second in the January 21 San Pedro, but his pedigree is built for longer distances -- he's by Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and is out of a mare by Travers winner Coronado's Quest. Hear the Ghost received a career-best 99 BRIS Speed rating for his two-turn bow on Saturday.

I would like to see the chestnut corner a little better next time -- Hear the Ghost basically held his positioning on the far turn and the speed won't always come back to him like it did in the San Felipe -- but he looks like the type with plenty of room for improvement. The fact that he's not a one-run closer is encouraging, with triple-digit BRIS E2 Pace ratings in his first two starts, and he put himself in good spot during the opening stages of the San Felipe, rating about five lengths back in fourth down the backstretch.

Hear the Ghost is one to follow, but I would not give up on Flashback following the narrow loss. He looked ready to fold his tent inside the sixteenth pole but kept battling to the wire, saving second when it appeared that the late-running Tiz a Minister would also run by him, and the gray son of Tapit had never been tested before, winning his first two starts, including the February 2 Robert B. Lewis, in easy fashion. The lightly-raced colt gained a ton of seasoning and should benefit from a tough race.

Flashback broke perfectly and was behind horses entering the first turn, well-positioned on the rail, when he suddenly came out a couple of spots and advanced to challenge longshot Salutos Amigos. Goldencents quickly joined the fray between rivals and Flashback found himself battling that classy speedball on the front end as he entered the backstretch. From that point, he was caught in a ridiculous pace duel that softened him up late. Perhaps the rider could not restrain him, but Julien Leparoux did not appear to try and take a hold of his mount before altering course toward the outside.

Regardless of circumstances, a runner-up effort in the San Felipe doesn't hurt the Bob Baffert trainee. The Hall of Fame trainer finished second in the same event with Derby winners Silver Charm and Real Quiet, and last year's Derby runner-up, Bodemeister, turned in a similar performance in his third career start, giving way late to the winning Creative Cause after battling up front with another speed horse. Baffert figures to work on getting Flashback to relax better next time.

Derby Top 10

  1. Verrazano -- Tampa Bay Derby winner retains top spot and could be a prohibitive Kentucky Derby favorite if he continues to shine in Wood Memorial
  2. Orb -- Distance is no concern for the Fountain of Youth winner and jockey John Velazquez will keep the mount for the Florida Derby
  3. Revolutionary -- Has the talent to be any kind if he can overcome maturity issues; Louisiana Derby will be a key test
  4. Itsmyluckyday -- Posted top BRIS numbers this year (111 and 106) and will look to maintain stellar form while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles in Florida Derby
  5. Flashback -- Liked the way he never quit despite tiring late in first setback; expecting further improvement in the Santa Anita Derby
  6. Code West -- Exits encouraging nose second in stakes debut and gut feeling is that he still has a lot more to offer for Baffert; Louisiana Derby is next
  7. Super Ninety Nine -- He's much-improved since stretching out to two turns this year; stock will continue to rise if he overcomes far outside post in Rebel
  8. Normandy Invasion -- Bad start cost him in Risen Star; late runner is a rebound candidate for Chad Brown in Wood
  9. Hear the Ghost -- Improving gelding secured a Kentucky Derby berth in San Felipe and could pack a strong punch in the final furlongs
  10. Rydilluc -- Lacks credentials but long-striding colt is bred for dirt and looms as an interesting prospect; will switch from turf to Polytrack in Blue Grass