04/04/2013 12:54PM

Wood Memorial: Verrazano, Vyjack put perfect records on the line


OZONE PARK, N.Y. – If one were to drive the 771 miles from Aqueduct to Churchill Downs, the route would include a trip over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, an imposing double-suspension structure that leads from Brooklyn to Staten Island and points south and west.

If one or more of the 3-year-olds at Aqueduct have designs on being in Louisville, Ky., on the first Saturday in May, they will have to navigate the 1 1/8 miles of Saturday’s $1 million Wood Memorial against Verrazano, an imposing figure with an unblemished record and, to this point, an unmatched turn of foot.

After two dominant wins at Gulfstream Park to begin the year, Verrazano stamped himself as a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender – and, in many camps, the Derby favorite – with a three-length victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 9. He overcame a bobble at the break, and an apparent disdain for the track, to win with authority.

His trainer, Todd Pletcher, likened Verrazano to Eskendereya, who won the 2010 Wood Memorial by 9 3/4 lengths but never ran again due to a soft-tissue injury.

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

“There’s so much natural talent there to begin with, we just kind of needed to keep moving forward, stretching him out in distance, get a little experience,” said Pletcher, who trains Verrazano for the Let’s Go Stable of Bryan Sullivan and Kevin Scatuorchio and the Coolmore connections of Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith. “I think we’re trying to maintain him where he is. We don’t necessarily need him to get better. We need him to keep showing these performances as the competition gets a little tougher and the distances get a little further.”

The Wood offers 170 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby on a 100-40-20-10 basis to the top four finishers. Verrazano has 50 points, presumably enough to get in.

Verrazano arrived from southern Florida on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, he galloped about 1 1/4 miles and visited the starting gate, where he went in and stood without incident.

Verrazano is a naturally fast horse and figures to be forwardly placed under John Velazquez after breaking from post 8.

The other possible speeds include the sprinter Chrisandthecapper, who drew the rail, and Freedom Child, who is in post 10.

Verrazano is not the only undefeated horse in the field. Vyjack, a gelding by Into Mischief, is 4 for 4, having won all his races at Aqueduct, including two sprints over the main track.

Vyjack showed a new dimension by coming from second-to-last in an 11-horse field to win the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths over Aqueduct’s inner track. That ability to relax was a sign of the maturity he has developed over the winter.

“When we first got him, he didn’t want to train,” said Gustavo Rodriguez, who has overseen Vyjack’s training while his brother, Rudy, served a 20-day suspension that ran through Thursday. “He didn’t want to go to the track. He used to put the brakes on us. We kept working, and he started to come around. Right now, he’s doing everything we want him to do. We’re very happy with the way he’s coming to the race.”

David Wilkenfeld, the owner of Vyjack, summed up the matchup between his horse and Verrazano earlier this week.

“Verrazano is the best horse we’ve faced, but I think Vyjack is the best horse Verrazano has faced,” he said.

Vyjack breaks from post 5 under Joel Rosario.

Most likely, it will take a win or a runner-up performance from any of the remaining eight Wood horses to make it into the Kentucky Derby field.

Normandy Invasion earned four points when he finished second in November’s Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. In his only start this year, he finished fifth in the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, a race in which he broke poorly but showed interest late.

Trainer Chad Brown is making a rider change to Javier Castellano in hopes that the son of 2004 Wood Memorial winner Tapit can get better early position.

“He’s never going to be a horse that’s going to be forwardly placed, nor would I want him to be,” Brown said. “He does need to gain two or three lengths out of the gate and get a little better position for himself.”

The most interesting prospects beyond the top three would appear to be Elnaawi and Mr Palmer.

Elnaawi, a son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, finished a respectable third in the Gotham with a troubled trip. He gets a rider switch to Eddie Castro on Saturday.

“We feel like he’s going in the right direction,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “He’s a very nice colt, should run well. I like when I’m able to place my horses in a lesser spot, but we’re facing two of the very best – maybe three of the very best. We’re ready, doing great. We just want him to run his lifetime best, which is what he’s going to have to do.”

Mr Palmer, a son of Pulpit, is coming off his lifetime best, winning the Private Terms Stakes sat Laurel on March 9. While the competition wasn’t stern, he overcame a slow start, a wide trip, and a slow pace to win by 3 1/2 lengths.

“We’re taking our shot, like everybody else,” trainer Bill Mott said. “There may be more proven and more seasoned horses than us, but not many have made more progress than we have from November to this point.”

Always in a Tiz was second to Vyjack in the Traskwood Stakes here last November.

Go Get the Basil is a nose away from having a four-race winning streak and has run well around two turns.

Freedom Child finished between Orb, last week’s Florida Derby winner, and Revolutionary, last week’s Louisiana Derby winner, when second in a one-mile maiden race here last November. His uncoupled stablemate, Quinzieme Monarque, finished fourth in the Remsen.

The Wood goes as race 11 on a 12-race card that begins at 12:50 p.m. Eastern. It is one of five graded stakes on the card. There is an all-stakes pick four with a guaranteed pool of $500,000 encompassing the Gazelle, Bay Shore, Carter, and Wood.

NBC Sports Network will televise the Wood in a 90-minute broadcast from 6 to 7:30 p.m. that also will include the Santa Anita Derby.