He dominated his debut by 73/4 lengths at Gulfstream on New Year's Day, and soon the buzz was that 2013 might be Verrazano's year. A 161/4 length "Whoa!" encore Feb. 2 put him first on most Kentucky Derby lists, and a three-length score March 9 in the Tampa Bay Derby kept him there.
"He's been a rare horse who's been able to go from a maiden on Jan. 1 to the Derby favorite on the first of April," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He's very professional and he's got that unique quality of speed and stamina to go with it.''
If Verrazano wins the $1-million, Grade I Wood Memorial Saturday at Aqueduct, Pletcher will take an undefeated colt to Kentucky for the second consecutive year. Last year's Wood winner, Gemologist, was 5-for-5 before finishing 16th in the Derby after being 2-for-2 at Churchill Downs.
Apollo, in 1882, is the last Derby winner who didn't compete as a 2-year-old. Bryan Sullivan, co-manager of Let's Go Stable, admits that's a concern. Minor shin problems last year sidelined Verrazano.
"We don't have a 2-year-old foundation, and that seasoning is definitely important,'' Sullivan said. "But the last five years or so lightly raced horses like Curlin and Big Brown came out of nowhere and made noise during the classics.''
Curlin didn't race at 2; Big Brown ran once. Yet Big Brown ruled the Derby and Preakness, and Curlin swept the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic. So great talent can overcome inexperience.
"I think it's probably just a matter of time,'' Sullivan said, "before one of these unraced 2-year-olds breaks that jinx of Apollo.''
Verrazano originally was going to be called Garden Salute. "I'm a big hockey fan, and the Rangers salute the crowd after each home game by raising their sticks,'' Sullivan said. Some of his five partners -- Islanders or Devils fans, perhaps? -- rejected the name.
Early last fall, Sullivan's co-manager, Kevin Scatuorchio, and his fiancee took a boat ride from New Jersey to Manhattan. "Underneath the bridge, Kevin texted me and suggested Verrazano,'' Sullivan said. "At that point, I just wanted to name him. I said, 'Sounds good to me.' ''
Commuters dread delays on the span connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island. Verrazano's tactical speed has helped him avoid traffic problems, often the Derby's determining factor. He breezed 5 furlongs Sunday in 1:01.17, with a final quarter-mile in a snappy 23.08 seconds. If he stays perfect, he'll be scrutinized obsessively in Louisville.
The 4-5 favorite isn't the only unbeaten horse among the 10 in the 11/8-mile Wood. The gelding Vyjack, the 4-1 second choice, is 4-for-4, all at Aqueduct, for trainer Rudy Rodriguez.
"I go into every race expecting we can win. This race is no different,'' said owner David Wilkenfeld, who grew up in Hewlett Harbor. "Our horse is very fit and worked terrifically.
"Verrazano has been very impressive and has top-level connections. He's the best horse we've faced, but I think Vyjack is the best horse he's faced.''
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