04/06/2013 6:49PM

Wood Memorial: Verrazano remains undefeated

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Barbara D. Livingston
Verrazano holds off Normandy Invasion (left) and Vyjack (center) to win the Wood Memorial.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Undefeated, but no longer untested, Verrazano turned back the challenges of logical contenders Normandy Invasion and Vyjack to win Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct by three-quarters of a length and perhaps earn himself the role as favorite for the May 4 Kentucky Derby.

Normandy Invasion rallied furiously to get second by a neck over previously undefeated Vyjack, likely earning the necessary points to get into the Derby field.

Vyjack, who suffered his first loss after winning the first four races of his career, will likely head to Louisville. He was third, 3 3/4 lengths in front of fourth-place finisher Mr Palmer, who was followed by Elnaawi, Chrisandthecapper, Quinzieme Monarque, Go Get the Basil, and Always in a Tiz. Freedom Child finished last but was declared a non-starter by the stewards as he was deemed in the hands of the assistant starter when the gates opened.

While not as dominant as he had shown in his previous three starts - including a three-length victory in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby last month - Verrazano was good enough to beat two quality horses and earn his owners, the Lets Go Stable of Bryan Sullivan and Kevin Scatuorchio, their first Grade 1 win.

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

He also gave trainer Todd Pletcher his third Wood Memorial victory in the last four years. Eskendereya (2010) did not make it to the Derby while Gemologist (2012) finished 16th.

“I feel good, I think there’s only one result we could have left here happy with and we got it,” Pletcher said in the blustery Aqueduct winner’s circle.

Verrazano was ridden by John Velazquez, who last week won the Florida Derby on Orb. While Pletcher said he expects Velazquez to ride his horse in the Kentucky Derby, Velazquez said he would like to wait before he has to make a decision.

“I’d be very stupid if I made a decision right now,” said Velazquez, who has seen top quality Derby contenders get sick or injured a week before the race.

Verrazano, sitting second, stalked Chrisandthecapper through a half-mile in 24.89 seconds and a half-mile in 49. Entering the far turn, Velazquez sent Verrazano to the lead but Chrisandthecapper  stayed with him for several strides.

Turning into the stretch, Verrazano grabbed a clear lead, but Vyjack, who was a close-up fifth, tried to make a run at Verrazano, but he appeared to flatten out in deep stretch.

Normandy Invasion, who saved all the ground while in sixth under Javier Castellano, came running in the stretch and though he was able to nip Vyjack, he was unable to get to Verrazano.

Verrazano, a son of More Than Ready, covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.27 and returned $3.60 as the 4-5 favorite.

“I never hit him, he was running good enough I didn’t have to hit him,” Velazquez said. “I didn’t even see [Normandy Invasion]. I thought Vyjack was the only one fighting me.”

Pletcher said he thought the Wood was another lesson learned for Verrazano, who will try to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old.

“I think he’s still learning, he’s had a tendency to kind of idle a little bit and wait on company down the lane, I thought he did that a little bit,” Pletcher said. “It’s the first time he really had horses real close to him at the finish of a race. Hopefully, every step we make is a learning experience for him and he learns to polish these races off a little better.”

Pletcher said he Verrazano would likely ship to Kentucky on April 14 and train at Churchill for three weeks leading up to the Derby.

Normandy Invasion, who was coming off a fifth-place finish in the Risen Star, probably earned the necessary points (40, he now has 44) to get into the Derby field by finishing second. He was kept a little closer to the pace than usual, but still came with a strong late run.

“I’m happy with my horse’s performance, very grateful to get up for second and get the points to hopefully get into the Derby,” trainer Chad Brown said. “And if the horse comes back good I don’t see any reason why a mile and a quarter third off the layoff shouldn’t really hit him between the eyes.”

Vyjack acted a little skittish in the paddock, but put in a solid effort. Like Normandy Invasion, Vyjack was probably impacted by the slow pace.

“I was hoping that the horse on the lead would go a little farther,” said Rudy Rodriguez, trainer of Vyjack. “He didn’t have the kick that he had the other day but we were happy the way he ran.”

Rodriguez said Vyjack would most likely move on to the Kentucky Derby.

The last Wood Memorial winner to come back and win the Kentucky Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, the 20th Wood starter to win the Derby. However, since 2004, the Wood has produced 19 Kentucky Derby starters with no better than a fourth-place finish.