For the first time in his brief career, Verrazano had to work to grind out a victory, but the 4-5 favorite found plenty to remain perfect in Saturday's Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. The Todd Pletcher pupil turned back a bid from the hitherto unbeaten Vyjack, then held off the late-running Normandy Invasion, and will now bring a four-for-four mark into the Kentucky Derby.
Jockey John Velazquez will now have a decision to make, for he is also the regular rider of Florida Derby hero Orb.
Verrazano had propelled himself into early favoritism for the Kentucky Derby with three cakewalks in Florida. A 7 3/4-length debut winner at Gulfstream Park on New Year's Day, he trounced allowance rivals by 16 1/4 lengths at the same track on February 2. The son of More Than Ready stretched out to two turns, and disposed of stakes company, in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby, but Saturday's opposition wasn't so easily brushed aside.
Owned by Let's Go Stable in partnership with the Coolmore principals of Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith, who bought into the colt in February, Verrazano caught a flyer out of post 8 and was already on top. But Velazquez gathered him back and conceded the lead to Chrisandthecapper, who capitalized on his rail draw to set the pace.
Meanwhile, Freedom Child was badly compromised at the start. When the gate sprang open, the assistant starter was still holding Freedom Child, who was thus unable to break with the field. He soon shook loose from the starter's grasp, but came out at an awkward angle and found himself a few lengths behind his rivals.
Up front, Chrisandthecapper got away with dawdling splits of :24 4/5 and :49 3/5. Verrazano was relaxed in second down the backstretch, and made a quick move entering the far turn to take over through six furlongs in 1:13 3/5. But he didn't open up, and that allowed Chrisandthecapper to come again on the inside. Velazquez pushed Verrazano on, and he summarily put the longshot away.
But by that point, Jerome and Gotham winner Vyjack was rallying into contention. Verrazano again responded to Velazquez's urging and repelled the challenge. Normandy Invasion arrived on the scene in deep stretch, but a fraction too late to present a dire threat to the winner.
Verrazano, who had three-quarters of a length to spare over Normandy Invasion at the wire, completed 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:50 1/5. He earned 100 points toward the Kentucky Derby, bringing his total up to 150.
"Every race he's learning," Velazquez said. "He's still coming along, and we learn more about him. He does things very easily. This is his last prep before going to the Derby, so hopefully he'll learn a lot from this one.
"He was already going, and (Vyjack) came to him, and I looked at him. I never hit (Verrazano). I was like, he's running good enough that I don't have to hit him.
"There was nobody on the outside, and by the wire I looked and the other horse (Normandy Invasion) came, and I never even saw that horse," the Hall of Fame rider admitted. "I thought Vyjack was the only one fighting me.
"So I went to hand-ride him and show him the whip and tried to keep his attention because I know he kind of waits, and he's looking at the infield, and I just kind of got his attention. And all of a sudden (Normandy Invasion) got (close) at the wire and I never saw him.
"I didn't hit (Verrazano). I didn't want to overdo things. He was doing enough to beat the other horse, anyway."
"He made kind of a quick move on the turn," Pletcher said, "and then idled a little bit, and made another quick move and idled a bit, which he has a tendency to do, but a very good effort. This race was not only a building block but a very significant race in its own right. I thought he handled everything really well. He's been very professional. He shipped into Tampa the day of the race, shipped in here only a few days ago and came over from Belmont just a few hours ago. Nothing seems to faze him.
"(The pace today) was pretty slow," the trainer noted. "I think he's shown that he's kind, he'll sit behind soft fractions, if necessary. It's nice to see that he'll do that. It's a demanding surface, and I think with races at Tampa and here under his belt, hopefully that has him in a good spot.
"I think he's still learning," Pletcher added. "He has a tendency to idle a little bit and wait on company down the lane. I thought that today he did that a little bit.
"It was the first time he had horses real close to him at the finish of a race, so hopefully every step we make is a learning experience for him and he learns to polish off these races off a little better."
Normandy Invasion took home 40 points, which along with the four he tallied when runner-up in last fall's Remsen, will almost certainly be enough to make the Derby field.
"I'm very proud of the horse," jockey Javier Castellano said of Normandy Invasion. "He did an amazing run. This is the first time I rode him, and he made a huge run. One more jump, and I could have won the race. His gallop-out was amazing; I had trouble pulling him up. That's a great feeling when you're looking at the big picture and the Kentucky Derby."
Vyjack finished another neck behind Normandy Invasion, and his 20-point haul for third boosts his total to 70 points.
Mr. Palmer got up for fourth. Next came Elnaawi, Chrisandthecapper, Quinzieme Monarque, Go Get the Basil and Always in a Tiz. Freedom Child recovered from his troubled start and actually worked his way into a good position nearing the final turn before giving way and trailing home last. After a stewards' inquiry, Freedom Child was officially declared a non-starter because of his disadvantage at the beginning.
Verrazano, who returned $3.60, $2.70 and $2.20, has now bankrolled $861,300.
A $250,000 Keeneland September yearling, Verrazano was bred in Kentucky by Emory Hamilton. He was produced by the Giant's Causeway mare Enchanted Rock, also the dam of Grade 2 victor El Padrino.
Verrazano's second dam was Grade 1 winner Chic Shirine, whose other offspring include Grade 2 winners Waldoboro and Tara Roma. Other descendants of Chic Shirine include Grade 1 winner Serra Lake, Grade 2 winners Hungry Island and Al Khali, and Grade 3 winners Cappuchino, Somali Lemonade and Soaring Empire.
Verrazano's third dam was Grade 1 queen Too Chic, who reared 1991 champion older mare Queena. The latter was the dam of Grade 1 victor Brahms and Grade 3 vixen La Reina.
Further back in this female line is Verrazano's fifth dam, *Monade, who captured the Epsom Oaks and was a champion in England and France.
Pletcher hopes that Verrazano will transfer his considerable game to Churchill Downs.
"There's some more preps to go, but I would say right now he's the legitimate (Kentucky Derby) favorite," Pletcher said. "The key now is to go to Churchill and get over that track well. Churchill can be a very peculiar surface and a lot of horses don't handle it. We'll probably go on (April 14).
"He didn't show me anything to say he won't (handle the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Derby). He's gone a mile, mile and a sixteenth, a mile and an eighth now and handled each one. He's got to go to Churchill and he's got to train well over that surface. If it's the surface we saw at the Breeders' Cup a couple of years ago, there might be no one that handles it. That's the real key. We've got a new track superintendent there; hopefully we get a good honest surface there."
Pletcher also commented on the rider situation.
"We'll see. I guess we're going to have to pin him (Velazquez) down here at some point," Pletcher said. "We've got a pretty long history and a lot of success together over the years, and I think it would be pretty hard to take off an undefeated horse, but we'll see what he says. I'm probably a little more flexible than the owners (in terms of when Velazquez makes a decision), but we'll need a decision here fairly soon."
Velazquez is keeping options open.
"I don't know -- that will come later on," the rider said. "We will see how the horses come back. We all know I had three years back-to-back with the favorite leading to the Derby and (none) of the three horses made it. So I hope the people give me the opportunity to watch the horses work, and then we'll make a decision later on. I'd be very stupid if I made a decision right now."