04/07/2013 11:53AM

Wood, SA Derby, 3yo Fillies Thoughts

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Like a lot of folks, I wasn’t bowled over by Verrazano’s victory in Saturday’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. At first, anyway. I mean, I walked away from the Wood giving Verrazano credit for remaining undefeated, winning over a new track, and beating two opponents in Normandy Invasion and Vyjack who were far better horses than he had faced before. Still, Verrazano had to work hard to score after the easiest trip he could have ever asked for, tracking a very slow early pace. If anything, the horse I was impressed with in the immediate wake of the Wood was Normandy Invasion, who finished strongly to get second, just under a length behind Verrazano and a neck before Vyjack, despite having the difficult task of rallying into the slow pace.

But after thinking about it overnight, I think Verrazano ran better in the Wood than many are giving him credit for. Was it his best race? No. Is the Kentucky Derby more open now on Sunday morning than it was 24 hours earlier? Yes. But I think, even with the benefit of the slow pace, Verrazano showed Saturday that he can finish well.

After a first quarter mile in 24.89 and a second quarter in 24.73, Verrazano made his move into the hottest part of the Wood’s pace. Verrazano took over late in a third quarter run in 24.12, held it in a fourth quarter in 23.98, and prevailed though a final eighth in 12.55. The Wood was the sort of slow-early, fast-late race that you would normally find exclusively on the turf, not on the dirt. I’m not sure it is fair to discredit Verrazano for winning a race that was run in a fashion unfamiliar to a lot of these 3-year-olds. In fact, they way he finished Saturday, I think it bodes well for Verrazano stretching out to the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby, and might even suggest that he can be effective coming from farther off the pace than he has had to so far.

I still also think that, under the circumstances, Normandy Invasion ran very well. But let’s not get too carried away. Normandy Invasion was at more of a disadvantage having to come from behind Verrazano, but it wasn’t like he was miles behind Verrazano early. He wasn’t. Normandy Invasion was four lengths behind Verrazano a quarter of mile into the Wood, only a little more than a length behind him a half mile in, and 3 1-2 lengths behind him at the three-quarters call.

Unlike the Wood, Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby was run in a more conventional, fast-early, slow-late style. Goldencents ran well in victory after pressing the pace set by Super Ninety Nine, who wound up being beaten almost 10 lengths. But Flashback, who finished second, disappointed again. Flashback had a fantastic trip in the Santa Anita Derby, sitting the inside pocket early before tipping out at the perfect time on the far turn, and he had absolutely no excuse not to win. I think that, at least at this stage of his career, Flashback has distance issues. I believe he is more of a late running sprinter or miler than a true router right now.

UPDATE, Monday morning - The breaking news overnight that Flashback came out of the Santa Anita Derby with a knee chip and is off the Triple Crown trail gives him a legitimate excuse for his loss on Saturday. I do, however, still wonder if he is a real distance horse.

Keep in mind that the relative good finish of the Wood and soft finish of the Santa Anita Derby have a lot to do with the paces in each race. Horses who go out strong early like they did at Santa Anita should have less in their tanks late, and come home on the slow side. Horses who go out slow early like in the Wood should have more in reserve late, and should finish better. And of course, the relative speed of the racing surface has an enormous impact on all interior fractions and final times as well. But with those caveats, I thought it would be useful to post the final three furlong fractions of all the major nine furlong Kentucky Derby preps run so far (don’t forget, we still have the Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass this Saturday), with a characterization of the early paces that preceded them. Here they are:

Wood Memorial – slow pace – 36.53

Santa Anita Derby – fast pace – 38.29

Florida Derby – slow pace – 37.98

Louisiana Derby – fast pace – 38.44

Sunland Derby – fast pace – 37.58

Spiral – slow pace – 38.98

Looking at these, the two things that I find interesting are Govenor Charlie’s good come home time in the Sunland Derby (which is mitigated somewhat by a lightning fast track that prevailed that day) and the very slow finish of the Spiral despite circumstances that favored a better finish.

Finally, a few quick thoughts on Saturday’s three big races for 3-year-old fillies:

Beholder is very good. But she also had a very easy early lead in her Santa Anita Oaks score. I doubt such easy leads will be had in the Kentucky Oaks.

Given that she is most definitely not a need-the-lead type, when they posted a half mile fraction of 48.12, and Emollient was three in front, it was only a matter of how big her win margin in Keeneland’s Ashland would be. It wound up being nine. Now we have to figure out if Emollient, who has run well on dirt before but never this well, can transfer that Polytrack form to Churchill’s main track.

Close Hatches and Princess of Sylmar, the one-two finishers in the Gazelle at Aqueduct, are both nice fillies. But Close Hatches’s front running win Saturday (which made her 3 for 3) came at a point in the day when the inside and speed still had a distinct advantage on Aqueduct’s main track. The track did even out in subsequent races, however.