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Verrazano Remains Unbeaten with Hard-Fought Victory in Wood Memorial

By Jenny Kellner | 04/06/2013 08:39 PM ET
PHOTO/Adam Coglianese

Verrazano added a hard-fought victory in the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack to extend his perfect record to 4-for-4 on Saturday, turning back previously undefeated Vyjack and then holding off a rousing late run from Normandy Invasion to win by three-quarters of a length.

Sent off as the 4-5 favorite in the field of ten 3-year-olds, Verrazano ran second through the early going as longshot Chrisandthecapper set moderate fractions of 24.89 and 49.62 seconds before giving way on the far turn. With Vyjack mounting his challenge on the outside from fifth, Verrazano rounded the turn with a narrow lead that he clung to through the stretch, digging in through the final yards to hit the wire just ahead of the fast-closing Normandy Invasion.

The winning time for 1 1/8 miles was 1:50.27.

“He made kind of a quick move on the turn, 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,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains the More Than Ready colt for the partnership of Let’s Go Stable and Michael B. Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith.

The victory gave Verrazano an additional 100 points on the new Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying system, and he will head to Churchill Downs on April 14 as the likely favorite for the May 4 Run for the Roses.

“He hasn’t done anything wrong so far,” said Pletcher, who won the 2010 Wood with Eskendereya and last year’s running with Gemologist. “There’s some more preps to go, but I would say right now he’s the legitimate [Derby] favorite. 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.

“I think he’s still learning,” added the trainer of Verrazano, whose winning margins in his three prior races were 7 ¾ lengths, 16 ¼ lengths, and three lengths. “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, trained by Chad Brown for Fox Hill Farm, was a neck in front of Vyjack, whose four-race winning streak at his home track came to an end.

“We were happy the way he ran,” said Rudy Rodriguez, trainer of Vyjack, who with 70 points likely has secured a berth in the starting gate for the Derby. “I have to talk to the owner and see what he decides. I think they already booked everything up, so I guess we’re going. I think that the plan is to go.”

By virtue of his runner-up effort, Normandy Invasion now has 44 points in the qualifying system.

“I’m happy with my horse’s performance,” said Brown. “I’m very grateful he got up for second, got the points, hopefully, to get into the Derby. If the horse comes back good, I don’t see any reason why a mile and quarter third off the layoff shouldn’t really hit him between the eyes.”

Finishing fourth was Mr Palmer, who was followed by Elnaawi, Chrisandthecapper, Quinzieme Monarque, Go Get the Basil, and Always in a Tiz.

Freedom Child, who crossed the line in 10th, was still in the hands of the starter when the gates opened and was declared a non-starter.

Verrazano, whose previous three victories came in Florida, including the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, earned $600,000 to lift his bankroll to $861,300 while his backers in the crowd of 12,119 collected $3.60 for a $2 win bet.

“We’re happy to move forward,” said Kevin Sullivan of Let’s Go Stable. “Anything can happen at Churchill, but this kind of validates us.”