03/09/2013 7:43PM

Verrazano answers all questions in Tampa Bay Derby

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Tom Cooley
Verrazano cruised to a three-length victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby to remain unbeaten.

OLDSMAR, Fla. – The margin was only three lengths. As if that matters.

Verrazano overcame adversity Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, where the unbeaten colt affirmed his status as a leading Kentucky Derby contender with a solid, three-length victory in the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby.

Making his third career start, his first start around two turns, and facing serious early pace pressure, Verrazano put away pace rival Falling Sky on the far turn, opened up into the lane and coasted home without a threat. He finished in 1:43.96 and scored a preliminary Beyer Speed Figure of 101. Questions answered.

“We found out he could travel, handle two turns over a quirky racetrack, and he got a little dirt in his face,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “He’s come a long way in 60 days.”

Verrazano won his debut Jan. 1 and his second start Feb. 2, both one-turn races at Gulfstream Park.

But the Tampa Bay Derby presented a new challenge for Verrazano and jockey John Velazquez, who won five races Saturday. At the start, Verrazano stumbled and grabbed a quarter on his right front. It was bleeding after the race but did not appear serious.

“He stumbled pretty good,” Velazquez said.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Velazquez let Verrazano show his speed, and into the first turn, he raced inside Falling Sky, and the two alternated on the lead through an opening quarter-mile in 23.50 seconds. Entering the backstretch, Velazquez took Verrazano back.

“I didn’t want to get caught up going head-and-head with that guy,” Velazquez said, referring to jockey Jose Espinoza and Falling Sky.

When Verrazano took back, Falling Sky cleared. That allowed Velazquez to guide Verrazano outside his pace rival. The rest was history.

Falling Sky went the opening half-mile in a quick 47.69 seconds, but Verrazano was lapped on him from the outside. When Velazquez said, “Go,” it was over.

“At the three-eighths pole, I let him do his thing,” Velazquez said.

Verrazano opened up, and though runner-up Java’s War entered the stretch with a head of steam rallying from last, the outcome never was in doubt for Verrazano, who returned $2.80.

“It was nice to get the 50 points,” Pletcher said, referring to the Kentucky Derby qualifying system. The trainer said Verrazano was likely to start next in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, with the Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby the second and third options.

Java’s War finished 4 1/4 lengths in front of third-place Falling Sky. Dynamic Sky finished fourth.

Trainer Ken McPeek was pleased with the effort of Java’s War. “He ran really well,” McPeek said. “He just hooked a freak on the front end. No disgrace.”

McPeek will talk with owner Charles Fipke before determining his next start, but he said the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the UAE Derby are two primary options.

Attendance on Saturday at Tampa was 10,476.