Updated on 05/01/2013 9:02PM

Kentucky Derby: Verrazano tries to buck history

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Barbara D. Livingston
Verrazano, putting in his penultimate Kentucky Derby work at Churchill Downs, will try to become the first horse to win the Derby without racing at 2 since Apollo in 1882.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In 1882, Jesse James was killed, false teeth and the electric iron were patented, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” opened in Moscow, and Apollo won the Kentucky Derby without having raced at age 2.

A lot has happened in the 130 years since, especially in regards to dental care. But no horse since Apollo has been able to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, something Verrazano will be trying to accomplish on Saturday in the 139th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

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Verrazano has won all four of his starts, and since his second start on Feb. 2 he has been acknowledged as the favorite for the Derby. But his standing has wavered the past fortnight, so much so that after the field was drawn Wednesday for the Derby, both Mike Battaglia, who makes the line at Churchill Downs, and Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, dropped him to the second choice, behind Florida Derby winner Orb.

Battaglia has Orb at 7-2, with Verrazano at 4-1. Watchmaker has Orb at 5-1, with Verrazano at 6-1. On Watchmaker’s line, three horses – Goldencents, Normandy Invasion, and Revolutionary – are next at 8-1. Goldencents is a stand-alone third choice with Battaglia at 5-1.

Verrazano drew post 14 and Orb post 16 when posts were drawn Wednesday night at Churchill Downs. There were 21 entered in the race, but a maximum of 20 can run.

Verrazano thus will break from the outside post in the main gate. Orb will be part of the six-horse auxiliary gate. When Verrazano’s post was drawn, posts 1 and 2 were still available, and trainer Todd Pletcher was anxious, fearing an inside draw.

“Phew, that was big,” said Pletcher, who wanted to be outside Falling Sky, a speed horse who already had landed post 13.
Pletcher entered a record-tying five horses in the Derby. In addition to Verrazano, he is represented by Charming Kitten (post 15), Overanalyze (9), Palace Malice (10), and Revolutionary (3).

Shug McGaughey, trainer of Orb, was happy where he wound up.

“I didn’t want the 2 or 3,” he said. “Fourteen or 16 would have been my two picks if they had been handed to me.”

Horses who drew poorly included Vyjack, who landed the outside post 20. Trainer Kenny McPeek’s duo of Frac Daddy and Java’s War are in posts 18 and 19, respectively, but post position was less important for Java’s War, who has no early speed and rallies from far back.

Entries were due Wednesday morning and were drawn early Wednesday evening on national television by Churchill Downs racing office officials using a traditional method whereby an entry card is pulled simultaneously with a numbered pill being pulled from a plastic bottle. The number on the pill is the post assigned to the horse whose name is on that entry card.

A maximum of 20 horses can run in the Derby. With 21 entered, the horses were ranked by points earned in designated prep races, a system instituted this year by Churchill Downs to replace the previous method, which used earnings in all graded stakes races. The top 20 drew for posts, with Fear the Kitten being placed on an also-eligible list. He can only draw into the Derby if there is a scratch from the main body of the race by scratch time Friday morning, when betting on the Derby commences.

Fear the Kitten ended up on the also-eligible list because Giant Finish was a late addition to the field Tuesday night. The 10 points Giant Finish had earned placed him 20th on the points list and knocked Fear the Kitten – whose connections announced Monday their intention to run – back to 21st. Another horse, Carving, also was being considered for the Derby on Tuesday, but because he would have been 22nd and in need of two scratches by Friday to get into the Derby, his connections decided not to fly him from Washington, where he has been training since a recent private purchase.

Giant Finish was expected to arrive Thursday. Lines of Battle, the invader from Ireland, arrived in the early hours Wednesday and was housed in a quarantine barn in the Churchill Downs stable area, standard procedure for foreign horses because of U.S. Department of Agriculture protocol. He will be able to go to the main track Friday, assuming his blood work is fine.

Verrazano made his debut Jan. 1, going 6 1/2 furlongs against maidens at Gulfstream Park. He cruised to a 7 3/4-length victory. But it was his next start, a one-mile allowance at Gulfstream that he won by 16 1/4 lengths while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 105, that rocketed him to the top of most Derby rankings.

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Verrazano then went to Tampa Bay Downs, where he won the Tampa Bay Derby on March 9, and he completed his pre-Derby campaign with a hard-fought victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 6.

“He’s come a long ways from being an unstarted maiden when he woke up on New Year’s Day,” Pletcher said. “He’s done a lot in a short amount of time – winning at 6 1/2 furlongs, then a mile, then at Tampa, then in New York. To do all of that speaks to his quality.”

It also, perhaps, speaks to why no horse without a start at 2 has won the Derby since 1882. That’s a lot of development to compress into just four months.

Verrazano has been able to get this far, Pletcher believes, not only because of his raw talent, but because he has the physical constitution to handle it.

“He’s a tremendous physical specimen,” Pletcher said. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger as we’ve gone along.”

Pletcher has one Derby win from 31 starters in 12 Derbies. He has run five horses in the Derby before, in 2007, when his best finish was sixth with Circular Quay. D. Wayne Lukas ran five in 1996 and won with Grindstone, and Nick Zito had five in 2005, his best finish seventh with Bellamy Road.

On a recent teleconference, Pletcher, who enjoys playing poker, was asked if his Derby hand this year was akin to having four aces in Texas hold ’em.

“Holding four aces in this game is a little different than Texas hold ’em,” he said. “We’ve been there with five, as have Zito and Lukas. But having five doesn’t mean you’ll win. I have a tremendous appreciation for how difficult it is to win the Derby.”