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Undefeated Verrazano and Vyjack Clash in Wood Memorial

By Jenny Kellner | 04/03/2013 04:35 PM ET
PHOTO/Courtney Heeney

A pair of undefeated Kentucky Derby contenders will put their perfect records on the line Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack as they head a field of 10 classic-minded 3-year-olds in the 89th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial.

From Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in 1930 to 2003’s Funny Cide, 20 Derby winners have used the Wood as the definitive prep for the Run for the Roses, and looking to follow in their footsteps are sophomore standouts Verrazano and Vyjack. With an approximate post time of 6:28 p.m., the Wood will be telecast by NBC Sports Network from 6 – 7:30 p.m.

The Todd Pletcher-trained Verrazano is odds on at 4-5 for the Wood, worth 100 points to the winner under the new qualifying system for the Derby. The More Than Ready colt likely has already qualified for the Run for the Roses by virtue of his three-length victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 9. Co-owned by Let’s Go Stable and the Coolmore partnership of Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith, Verrazano broke his maiden on New Year’s Day at Gulfstream Park in impressive fashion and next scored an eye-popping 16 ¼-length allowance victory on February 2.

“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.”

Pletcher himself has had considerable success in the Wood, taking two of the past three runnings with Eskendereya (2010) and Gemologist (2012), both of whom were favored. Pletcher also saddled odds-on Uncle Mo to a third-place finish in 2011.

“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,” said Pletcher. “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.”

With Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez aboard, Verrazano drew post position 8.

With four wins in as many starts, all at Aqueduct, Vyjack would appear to have the home-court advantage in the Wood. Owned by David Wilkenfeld’s Pick Six Racing, the Into Mischief gelding broke his maiden and won the Traskwood overnight stakes at age two, and added the Grade 2 Jerome and the Grade 3 Gotham to his resume this year.

On or close to the pace in his first three starts, Vyjack showed a different dimension in the Gotham, rallying from 10th at the top of the stretch on his way to an impressive 2 ¼-length victory over West Hills Giant.

“Earlier, maybe we weren’t training him the right way,” said Gustavo Rodriguez, who has been supervising Vyjack’s training. “Now, we train him differently and got him to relax. We changed the training. We put him behind horses, and it seems like everything is good with him. We think the horse is getting better as time goes by. When we work him, we like to put him in company because sometimes he doesn’t pay attention. When we put him in company, he focuses.”

With 50 points in the Derby qualifying system, Vyjack – who is named after Wilkenfeld’s parents, Vivienne and Jack – has most likely already earned his way into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but Wilkenfeld never considered skipping the Wood.

“I think it will be a good test for both horses,” he said on a Tuesday conference call. “I think, obviously, Verrazano is the best horse that we’ve faced, but I think Vyjack is also the best horse that Verrazano has faced to date, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Joel Rosario, who last Saturday won the $10 million Dubai World Cup aboard Animal Kingdom, will be back aboard Vyjack, who drew post position 5 and was listed as the 4-1 second choice on the morning line for the Wood.

Third choice at 5-1 in the Wood is Normandy Invasion, who in two appearances at the Big A in 2012 broke his maiden and finished second by a nose to Overanalyze in the Grade 2 Remsen. In his lone start this year, the Tapit colt was fifth as the favorite behind 135-1 shot Ive Struck a Nerve in the Grade 2 Risen Star on February 23 at the Fair Grounds. Since then, the Foxhill Farms color-bearer has turned in three bullet works at Palm Meadows Training Center, most recently breezing a half mile in 47.95 on March 31.

“He came out of the race [at the Fair Grounds] in good shape,” said trainer Chad Brown. “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.”

Javier Castellano will ride Normandy Invasion from post position 2.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who last year saddled Alpha to a runner-up finish in the Wood, will be represented Saturday by Shadwell Stable’s Elnaawi, who six weeks after breaking his maiden, finished third in the Grade 3 Gotham.

“With Elnaawi, it’s neat this year because he wants to be where we’re at now,” said 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.

“Sometimes you’re under a little bit of pressure to make sure you get there on the day,” he added. “If he’s good enough, he is; if not we’ll adjust. But, as far as leading him over there, no problem at all.”

Eddie Castro will be aboard Elnaawi, who drew post position 4 at 12-1 on the morning line.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who last saddled a horse in the Wood in 2008, when Court Vision finished third, is back with Mr Palmer. The Pulpit colt is 2-for-2 in 2013, having broken his maiden at the Big A on February 17, and most recently going from last to first in the Private Terms stakes at Laurel Park.

“He’s mentally and physically matured a lot [from last year],” said Leana Willaford, assistant to Mott. “He’s an attractive horse and a good mover, and as it turned out he’s going to be [a good horse]. He’s made a steady progression almost every start. Some horses just take a little longer.”

Mr Palmer, 12-1 on the morning line, drew post position 6 under Junior Alvarado.

Trainer Tom Albertrani will send out the uncoupled duo of Freedom Child and Quinzieme Monarque, both of whom will run on Lasix for the first time.  Owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, Freedom Child enters the Wood off a 5 ¼-length maiden victory at Gulfstream Park while Quinzieme Monarque returns to the dirt after a fourth in the Grade 3 Palm Beach turf stakes.

“Freedom Child was very impressive breaking his maiden and last year finished second to [Florida Derby winner] Orb in a maiden race at Aqueduct,” said Albertrani. “We may be stepping up a little quickly, but we have to take a chance to see if we have a Derby horse. With Quinzieme Monarque, we know he likes the distance, and we’ll give him one more chance on the dirt.”

Freedom Child, 30-1 on the morning line, will leave from post position 10 with Elvis Trujillo, while Quinzieme Monarque, who drew post position 3 under Irad Ortiz, Jr., is also 30-1.

Rounding out the field are Chrisandthecapper, an 11 ½-length maiden winner on March 9; Always in a Tiz, fifth in the Grade 3 Southwest last time out, and Go Get the Basil, second by a nose in an optional claimer on March 7.

The field for the $1,000,000 Wood Memorial:

PP Horse WGT. Owner Trainer Jockey Odds
1 Chrisandthecapper 123 Mr. Amore Stable Jason Servis Jose Lezcano 30-1
2 Normandy Invasion 123 Fox Hill Farm Chad Brown Javier Castellano 5-1
3 Quinzieme Monarque 123 John M.B. O'Connor Tom Albertrani Irad Ortiz, Jr. 30-1
4 Elnaawi 123 Shadwell Stable Kiaran McLaughlin Eddie Castro 12-1
5 Vyjack 123 Pick Six Racing Rudy Rodriguez Joel Rosario 4-1
6 Mr Palmer 123 Michael Lauffer Bill Mott Junior Alvarado 12-1
7 Always in a Tiz 123 MeB Racing Stables Dominick Schettino Calvin Borel 15-1
8 Verrazano 123 Let's Go Stable Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 4-5
9 Go Get the Basil 123 John T. Esposito Rick Violette Jose ortiz 30-1
10 Freedom Child 123 West Point Thoroughbreds Tom Albertrani Elvis Trujillo 30-1