04/01/2013 12:09PM

Wood Memorial: Normandy Invasion gives Chad Brown first serious shot at Kentucky Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Normandy Invasion likely needs a first- or second-place finish in Saturday's Wood Memorial to secure a spot in the Kentucky Derby.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. – Saturday’s $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct may be Normandy Invasion’s last chance to make the Kentucky Derby, but it could be the first serious opportunity for his trainer, Chad Brown, to make it to America’s most prestigious horse race.

At 34, and about 5 1/2 years into his training career, Brown has had the bulk of his success on turf, winning 29 graded stakes on grass and just three on dirt. He has won two Breeders’ Cup races – both on turf – and has trained the last two female turf champions, Stacelita and Zagora.

Brown, a former assistant to Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, did a tremendous job nursing Awesome Feather, the 2010 2-year-old filly champion – that year trained by Stanley Gold – back from tendon problems to win the Grade 1 Gazelle. Brown also has guided Last Gunfighter to five consecutive dirt victories, including the Grade 3 Excelsior last month.

A year ago, Brown made his Triple Crown debut with Street Life, who managed a fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes and won two listed stakes before suffering a career-ending injury in the Travers. He had finished sixth in the Wood Memorial.

But Normandy Invasion has fueled Derby dreams for Brown and owner Rick Porter since he won a one-mile maiden race by 9 1/4 lengths Nov. 2 at Aqueduct. Three weeks after that, Normandy Invasion lost the Grade 2 Remsen by a nose to Overanalyze, also at Aqueduct.

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

When Brown sat down with Porter to map out Normandy Invasion’s winter campaign, it was, at least for Brown, with more than the Kentucky Derby in mind. So, despite a new points system to qualify for the Derby that puts a premium on 3-year-old performance, Brown and Porter decided to run in just two prep races.

Normandy Invasion, a son of 2004 Wood winner Tapit, enters the Wood with just 4 Derby qualifying points and likely needs a first- or second-place finish to secure a spot in the Derby field, provided 20 or more horses are entered, as expected.

“We don’t want to over-race the horse just to get there,” Brown said Sunday in his office at the Palm Meadows training center. “It’s a long year, there are a lot of other nice races for this horse, and I don’t think this horse is strictly a 3-year-old, either. He could [have a long] career if we take care of him and give him a fair shot to make the Derby but don’t make that the whole centerpiece of his whole racing career.”

In his first start this year, the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, Normandy Invasion got away poorly and stumbled a few strides out of the gate. He was last a half-mile into the 1 1/16-mile race and rallied to be fifth, beaten 1 1/2 lengths.

“I look at it as he got the race he needed,” Brown said. “Maybe the group he was facing wasn’t that strong . . . maybe the Remsen wasn’t that strong of a race as far as the horses around him, but he’s a nice horse. His numbers are good. He ran a good number in the Risen Star. If he moves forward off that number, he should be right there in the Wood.”

Brown has been extremely pleased with Normandy Invasion’s training since the Risen Star. He has rattled off three consecutive bullet workouts at Palm Meadows, including a half-mile move in 47.80 seconds Sunday by himself. His previous two bullet moves were in company.

“He went even better than I expected him to go,” Brown said of Sunday’s work. “He’s turning into a real professional horse. He went around there with his ears up. The time might have been a touch faster than I was looking for, but he did it so easy, with no company around him.”

Brown is making a jockey change for the Wood from Jose Lezcano, aboard Normandy Invasion for the last three starts, to Javier Castellano, who already seems well mounted for the Kentucky Derby with Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary.

“Jose actually gets along with Normandy Invasion very well,” Brown said. “The issue for this race is I think we’re sort of looking for a little bit better chemistry in and around the starting gate for this horse, and it’s time to try something new. If the horse can have a little better chemistry with a rider leaving the gate and get better position, that might be all the difference in the world. He hasn’t lost his last two races by large margins.”

If Normandy Invasion does perform well enough in the Wood to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Brown will be happy to go. If not, Brown will regroup and prepare Normandy Invasion for other races and hope his incoming 2-year-old class gets him to Churchill Downs next year.

“I don’t feel like this is a once-in-a-lifetime, I’ll-never-have-it-again opportunity where I really have to tighten the screws on this horse to get there – that’s not the approach I’m taking,” Brown said. “I’d like to think we’re going to have more opportunities than this.”

Normandy Invasion will ship to New York from southern Florida on Wednesday on a flight that also will include Wood favorite Verrazano.

On Sunday, Verrazano worked five furlongs in 1:01.05 under jockey John Velazquez, who will ride the horse in the Wood. He worked in company with the graded stakes winner Discreet Dancer, who is coming up for Saturday’s Grade 1 Carter.

Velazquez, who rode Orb to victory in Saturday’s Florida Derby, was pleased with how Verrazano, undefeated in three starts, breezed Sunday.

“He breezed really well,” Velazquez said. “I was planning to be farther back, but the guy, instead of going, he just waited for me, and I was in front of him. Then, I had to wait for him, and we finished up really good the last quarter-mile and galloped out very good.”

Others expected to be entered Wednesday, when post positions are drawn for the Wood, are Vyjack (Joel Rosario to ride), Mr Palmer (Junior Alvarado), Elnaawi (Eddie Castro), Always in a Tiz (Calvin Borel), Freedom Child (Elvis Trujillo), Quinzieme Monarque (Irad Ortiz Jr.), and Go Get the Basil (no rider named).