04/04/2013 3:15PM

Steven Crist: Wood Memorial breeds a player-fan conflict

Barbara D. Livingston
Verrazano works in company with stablemate and Carter favorite Discreet Dancer on March 24 at Palm Meadows.

The decision to bet with or against Verrazano as the 4-5 favorite in the Wood Memorial Saturday is less of a pure handicapping choice than an internal struggle between two voices that emerge in many a horseplayer’s mind this time of year.

On one hand, the racing fan in all of us wants to see a fast and undefeated colt with boundless potential prove to be the real deal. If Verrazano wins the Wood with same flair that has carried him to three victories by a combined 27 lengths, he will probably be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby May 4 regardless of what happens at Santa Anita later Saturday afternoon or at Keeneland and Oaklawn next weekend. On the other, the wary and cynical horseplayer in us is saying to hold our horses and curb our enthusiasm – we’ve seen this story before and it deviates from the script more often than not.

[WOOD MEMORIAL: Get Aqueduct PPs, watch video previews]

The Wood card at Aqueduct Saturday marks the return of quality racing to New York for the first time since Thanksgiving weekend, the last time we had a Grade 1 race north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, just 18 miles west on the Belt Parkway from Aqueduct. (Stay Thirsty wore down Groupie Doll to win the Cigar Mile.) The first Grade 1 actually comes half an hour before the Wood, when Discreet Dancer takes on six other sprinters in the Carter Handicap. Discreet Dancer is best known for winning the recent Gulfstream Park Handicap after Fort Larned dumped his rider coming out of the gate, but if you think all the way back to last spring, he may remind you a little bit of Verrazano.

Both are trained by Todd Pletcher and both began their careers with lengthy and flashy victories that put them atop many early Kentucky Derby lists. Discreet Dancer won his first two starts, at Gulfstream, by a combined 15 1/4 lengths, which made him the 4-5 favorite against Union Rags in the 2012 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. He made the lead but tired late, came out of the race with an injury, was forgotten by Derby Day, and was sidelined for 11 months before returning as a sprinter this year.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders with odds and video]

There are reasons to be a little more bullish on Verrazano, and not just because he has worked well in tandem with Discreet Dancer the last two Sundays. He cleared his stakes debut successfully, winning the Tampa Bay Derby in his third career start over an unfamiliar and sometimes quirky surface despite a bobbling start, and he has a somewhat more promising pedigree for stretching out farther. Still, he will be facing a higher caliber of competition in the Wood thnan he has met before, primarily from Vyjack and Normandy Invasion. So while the fan in me will be rooting for him to win by a dozen, there’s a reminder that he’s no cinch just one race earlier on the card.

Selective security

This year’s Wood and Santa Anita Derby later Saturday will be run under “extra security” for no particular reason other than a current trend for regulators to keep announcing that they are Very Concerned and Deeply Committed to issues of safety and integrity. There has been no allegation of mischief in high-profile Derby preps as opposed to any other race, which might lead a cynical person to believe that these are grandstanding measures being taken at one of the few times of year when the general public might be paying any attention to horse racing. Supporters say they are necessary to reassure the public, but they could well be having the opposite effect.

If extra security is necessary, why is it being taken for only one of the thousand or so races being run at Aqueduct this year? If there is a problem, why aren’t these same efforts being made for the four other graded stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday, much less the maiden and claiming races every weekday afternoon? By taking unnecessary and cosmetic steps with a single race and not all the others, these regulators are suggesting that integrity is more important in some races than in others, and that there is an ongoing problem that they are choosing not to address 99.9 percent of the time.

Some supporters have likened the measures to extra security at airports, inconvenient but benign. This selective implementation, however, is more like increasing airport security only for first-class passengers on flights to expensive resorts.