Verrazano turned into the stretch in front, as he did in his first three races, only this time he wasn't on cruise control. The horses behind him weren't dropping back, and for the first time, he found himself in a fight. The question was whether he would hit back.
The striking, muscular colt dug in Saturday at windswept, chilly Aqueduct, holding off the gelding Vyjack, the other undefeated horse in the $1-million, Grade I Wood Memorial. Normandy Invasion's powerful rally beat Vyjack by a neck but fell three-quarters of a length short of Verrazano.
For the second consecutive year, trainer Todd Pletcher will bring an undefeated Wood winner to the Kentucky Derby. Last year, Gemologist ran 16th, but that colt never had the potential or expectations that are attached to Verrazano.
"I feel good,'' Pletcher said. "There was only one result we would have been happy with, and we got it. He never was headed and he never really got into a dogfight, but it was the first time he felt horses on his flank at the end of a race.''
A slow pace aided Verrazano and jockey John Velazquez, who stalked in second behind 77-1 shot Chrisandthecapper, named for the Nets' radio team of Chris Carrino and Tim Capstraw. Verrazano moved three-wide to the front after 6 furlongs in 1:13.74, with Vyjack and Joel Rosario a length behind. Vyjack tried hard but never looked as if he would go by. His owner, Long Island native David Wilkenfeld, thought the fractions were the key.
"There was no pace,'' Wilkenfeld said. "[Vyjack] likes to sit back, but he didn't have a choice but to be up close.''
Verrazano paid $3.60 after running 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.27, with a final furlong in a solid 12.55 seconds. "He hasn't done anything wrong,'' Pletcher said, "and he didn't show me anything to say he won't get a mile and a quarter. I would say right now he's a legitimate Derby favorite.''
Long shot Freedom Child broke poorly while in the hands of an assistant starter. He was declared a non-starter and all bets were refunded.
Goldencents wins at Santa Anita. Goldencents and Kevin Krigger took the lead on the stretch turn and beat even-money Flashback by 1 1/4 lengths in the Grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. The win guaranteed a return trip to Kentucky for trainer Doug O'Neill, who swept last year's Derby and Preakness with I'll Have Another. Goldencents ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.76 and paid $15. Among his owners is Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who was busy in Atlanta with Wichita State.
"Kevin rode a brilliant race,'' O'Neill said. "We're so pumped. As long as Goldencents stays injury free, we're going back to Louisville, baby.''