03/13/2013 12:48PM

Dick Jerardi: Verrazano's ability counts more than his experience

John Duca/Tom Cooley Photography
Verrazano earned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in the Tampa Bay Derby.

As I watched the one-horse stretch run of the Tampa Bay Derby, I was thinking that Verrazano was the kind of horse that would have been dismissed as a Kentucky Derby contender as recently as six years ago. No horse, without a 2-year-old foundation, would have been taken seriously, no matter how good he looked.

The Derby handicapping game changed for good in 2007 and 2008. Curlin did not make his first start until Feb. 3, 2007. Big Brown started once on the grass as a 2-year-old in September. He did not make his 3-year-old debut until March 5, 2008.

Curlin won his maiden Feb. 3 by 12 3/4 lengths, getting a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. He won the Rebel on March 17 by 5 1/4 lengths, getting a 99 Beyer. He won the April 14 Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths, getting a 105 Beyer. Traffic trouble cost Curlin any chance in the Derby when a well-beaten third behind Street Sense. With a clear run in the Preakness, he ran down the Derby winner, getting a 111 Beyer. He got a 107 Beyer when second in the Belmont Stakes and clinched Horse of the Year in the fall when he got a 119 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Perhaps, Curlin was a one-off. Perhaps, not.

As a 3-year-old, Big Brown won a first-level allowance by 12 3/4 lengths on March 5, getting a 106 Beyer. He came back on March 29 to overpower the Florida Derby field by five lengths, getting another 106. Going around the field from post 20, he crushed the Derby by 4 3/4 lengths, getting a 109 Beyer.

In comparison to Big Brown, Verrazano is going to be supremely tested by the time he gets to Kentucky in April.

Post Curlin and Big Brown, we simply had to look at the Derby differently. Experience did not matter nearly as much talent.

Is there much question that Verrazano is the most talented colt in this group? He won his maiden Jan. 1 by 7 3/4 lengths, getting a 93 Beyer. He won that Feb. 2 allowance by 16 1/4 lengths, getting a 105 Beyer. And he won the Tampa Bay Derby by an easy three lengths, getting a 101 Beyer.

Let’s review. Three races, three wins, by an average of nine lengths with an average Beyer of nearly 100. The colt has never been in front from the start, but has always been right with the pace. You combine tactical speed with acceleration, you have possibilities.

That speed, used correctly, can make the Derby’s 20-horse field into a four-horse field, with the other 16 spread out behind.

Do I care that Verrazano is by More Than Ready? No more than I cared that Union Rags was by Dixie Union when I picked him to win the 2012 Belmont Stakes.

Breeding seems to matter about as much as experience anymore. It is simply about finding the horse with the most ability.

To this point, that is obviously Verrazano. The key words are “to this point.”

There are few Derby paths without detours. So far, everything has gone perfectly for Verrazano in his preparation. Perhaps, that never changes; he goes on to win the Wood Memorial easily with another triple-digit Beyer and arrives in Kentucky as the overwhelming favorite.

I am making no predictions, just saying what we know to this point. I am not saying Verrazano is Big Brown or Curlin. I am saying that those two horses proved that the old ways of looking at the game are just that – old.

Now, I can hear everybody saying Todd Pletcher is 1-for-life in the Derby. I certainly think that matters more than the experience angle, because it is possible that Pletcher’s methods, so effective in just about every other kind of race, simply don’t work for the Derby. More likely, he simply has not brought enough of the right horses to Churchill Downs.

They don’t call this trainer racing or jockey racing. It is horse racing.

Trainers can mess it up. So can jockeys.

Neither can do anything without the right horse.

It is now seven weeks to the Derby. Nothing has been decided, but the picture is, at least, coming into focus. And, today, Verrazano is right in the middle of that picture.