The Grade I Wood Memorial is powered by a V-twin engine today.
Verrazano and Vyjack will bring their undefeated records against each other in Aqueduct’s big prep for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, but there are more parts to this machine than just those two.
In particular, Normandy Invasion, trained by Mechanicville native Chad Brown for Fox Hill Farms, comes into the Wood needing to finish at least second to make the Derby field and will be looking to make amends for a troubled fifth in the Risen Star.
But most of the pre-race attention has been on Verrazano, the current Wynn Las Vegas co-favorite, with Florida Derby winner Orb, to win the Derby, and to a lesser extent on Vyjack.
He’s won all four of his starts at Aqueduct, the last two were on the inner dirt track in the Jerome and Gotham.
The Wood and Santa Anita Derby will be shown live on NBCSN during a 90-minute broadcast beginning at 6 p.m.
Unraced as a 2-year-old, Verrazano is the 4-5 morning-line favorite for Lets Go Stable and the Coolmore connections off three wins in Florida by a combined 27 lengths.
“If you can’t be excited, you probably shouldn’t be in this business,” Lets Go managing partner Bryan Sullivan said during a national teleconference. “You know, it’s nerve-racking, but I think at any time in any sport you get to this level, it’s going to be nerve-racking, so you just do the best you can and try to manage your horse the proper way and, hopefully, everything else takes care of itself.”
Verrazano tops the powerhouse of Derby prospects trained by Todd Pletcher.
He has had recent success in the Wood, but has been part of the trend of Wood failure at the Derby.
Pletcher trained Gemologist and Eskendereya, the 2010 Wood winner who missed the Derby due to injury.
“Anytime you have a favorite for a race like the Wood Memorial, you’re hoping everything goes well,” Pletcher told the New York Racing Association. “Having currently the early favorite for the Derby is obviously on your mind, but you have to stay focused on doing what you would normally do for horses pointing to races and not get caught up in the big picture too much.”
If Verrazano makes it to the Derby, he will be facing an ominous historical note — a horse unraced at 2 hasn’t won the race since Apollo in 1882.
Sullivan said Verrazano was set to run in December, though, but Pletcher decided to wait for the next condition book, and the son of More Than Ready fell into the “unraced at 2” category by running his career debut on New Year’s Day. He won by 73⁄4 lengths.
“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,” Pletcher said. “He’s been able to handle everything we’ve thrown at him so far, and now we have another step to go.”
Vyjack has handled everything, too, although it’s all stayed within the confines of Aqueduct.
He won three straight at or near the front end, then came from next-to-last in an 11-horse field in the Gotham to beat West Hills Giants by 21⁄4 lengths.
He’s owned by Pick Six Racing and trained by Rudy Rodriguez, who came off a 20-day suspension just in time for the Wood.
Rodriguez was penalized when his filly Majestic Marquet tested positive for the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory banamine.
This week, his attorney, Karen Murphy, who also serves as a special advisor to the NYRA board of directors, told the Daily Racing Form that she believes the Rodriguez suspension is a case of tampering.
She went so far as to assign some culpability on the part of NYRA itself for not having installed a requested security camera on the barn in which the filly was stabled.
It’s created an unwanted sidestory for the Vyjack camp.
“Well, maybe that’s good for selling newspapers, but I don’t know what it has to do with my horse,” Pick Six managing partner David Wilkenfeld said during the teleconference.
Vyjack is a gelded son of Into Mischief and will be ridden by Joel Rosario for the second race in a row.
“Obviously, Verrazano is the best horse that we’ve faced, but I think Vyjack is the best horse that Verrazano has faced to date, so I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Wilkenfeld said.
Normandy Invasion represents perhaps the best Derby prospect in the relatively short career of Brown as a head trainer, but, unlike Verrazano and Vyjack, his colt is going to need to finish in the top two today just to make the field, after he got shut out of qualifying points with his hard-closing fifth in the Risen Star.
He had a horrible trip at Fair Grounds, but still finished just a length and a half behind winner I’ve Struck a Nerve, who is off the Derby trail with an injury.
“He probably needed that race for the last bit of fitness after the freshening,” Brown said. “He’s very fit right now, so I expect him to move forward. We’re confident he likes the track — it takes away one element of guesswork.
Normandy Invasion broke his maiden on the Aqueduct main track by 91⁄4 lengths in November, then was second by a nose to Overanalyze in the Remsen.
The 30-1 long shot Chrisandthecapper is named in part after Tim Capstraw, a former basketball assistant coach at Siena under Mike Deane.
Ron Lombardi, who owns the company that supplies physical therapy to the Brooklyn Nets, named his colt after the Nets radio bradcast team of Capstraw and Chris Carrino.
As high as anticipation is for the Wood, it hasn’t been a strong indicator of Kentucky Derby performance in the last 10 years.
Empire Maker, second to Funny Cide in the 2003 Derby, is the only Wood winner to hit the board over that stretch.
Tale of Ekati was fourth in the Derby in 2008, then the Wood winner missed the Derby for three years before Gemologist made it last year, only to finish 16th.
There will be enhanced security measures for the Wood.
Blood samples were taken from the Wood runners on Wednesday for out-of-competition testing. Analysis of the samples will be conducted by New York state’s Equine Drug Testing Program and is expected to be complete by this morning.
Also, the Wood horses have been monitored by additional security personnel in their respective barns/stalls at Aqueduct and Belmont.
The stakes-studded Wood card also includes the Grade I Carter for sprinters; the Grade II Gazelle, which offers Kentucky Oaks qualifying points; the Grade III Bay Shore for 3-year-old sprinters and the Grade II Ruffian for older fillies and mares at a mile.
Ed Stanco, a 1967 Linton High graduate who lives in New Jersey, owns the 9-5 Gazelle second choice, Princess of Sylmar. She has won her last four by a combined 383⁄4 lengths, the last three at Aqueduct.
The 8-5 favorite is the undefeated, but lightly raced Close Hatches, an impressive allowance winner at Gulfstream Park on March 10 for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and Juddmonte Farms.
Discreet Dancer, who appeared to be a hot Derby prospect for Pletcher last year, is back to shorter distances this year after being away from the races for a year, and he’s the 8-5 favorite in the Carter off a big win in the Gulfstream Park Handicap.
SANTA ANITA DERBY
The Santa Anita Derby, which is scheduled to go to post at 7 p.m. ET, took a hit this week when San Felipe winner Hear the Ghost was scratched and knocked off the Derby trail with an injury.
That still leaves eight horses and a typically stacked lineup from Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who has won this race six times.
He’s got the 9-5 favorite Flashback, second in the San Felipe, Gary and Mary West’s Power Broker and Super Ninety Nine, who went the Arkansas route, winning the Southwest at Oaklawn Park by 111⁄4 lengths before finishing fifth to Will Take Charge in the Rebel.
“What makes the Santa Anita Derby so exciting is not only if you you win you punch your ticket for the Kentucky Derby, but one thing I’ve learned is that the mile-and-an-eighth distance really starts separating the ones that want to go on,” Baffert said at the race draw.
Also on the card, Beholder, the 2012 champion 2-year-old filly, will break from the outside of five horses as the 3-5 favorite for the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks.
She was upset as the heavy favorite by Renee’s Titan in the Santa Ynez to open her 3-year-old season, but came back to win the Grade I Las Virgenes by 33⁄4 lengths over Fiftyshadesofhay.
MOTION OUT, METTEE IN
Team Valor International has hired Rick Mettee to train all of its North American-based horses, ending a 21⁄2-year association with Graham Motion that culminated in Animal Kingdom’s scintillating win in the $10 million Dubai World Cup last weekend.
Mettee has been the assistant to Saeed bin Suroor, who trained the North American-based horses for Godolphin Racing for the last five years.
He will officially become the exclusive trainer for Team Valor on May 1.
In the 1990s, Mettee trained horses for Barry Irwin’s partnerships, winning the Jaipur with French import Kanatiyr. With horses trained mainly by Mettee, Godolphin won the 2009 Eclipse Award as outstanding owner.
“Rick has experience training horses on synthetic and dirt surfaces in America and in Dubai,” Team Valor managing partner Barry Irwin said in a release. “He did exceptional work while winning several Grade I races with the Godolphin runners. We are looking forward to renewing our relationship with him.”
Motion has been training the Team Valor horses since late 2010, while also training horses for other owners.
“Graham Motion trained Team Valor’s horses privately from our barn at Fair Hill Training Center as an accommodation to us,” Irwin said. “But he made it clear that he would continue to train for other owners. We understood this and accepted his conditions.
“However, due to the unique type of operation we run with partnership-owned horses, we feel at this time it would serve our needs better to have one trainer that was exclusive to our stable. Graham agrees. He has offered to continue to train our horses through the month of April until our new trainer has set up his operation.”
Motion’s own statement on the matter: “We have enjoyed the association and are immensely grateful for the opportunities given by Barry and the partners at Team Valor International. At this point, I feel that Team Valor is best served by a private trainer situation, and this is not something I am prepared to do. I am extremely proud of the job my team has done over the past two years, and nothing will diminish the memories I have of standing before the huge crowds at Churchill Downs and Meydan with my family.
“This [Team Valor association] was always set up to be a separate part of our operation for the benefit of everyone. I’m proud of what we did together and the success we had. It’s been an amazing two years.”
Motion continues to train Animal Kingdom, who is expected to make his final start in June at the Royal Ascot meeting in either the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes or the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes for Arrowfield Stud and Team Valor International.
In addition to the World Cup, Motion won the Derby with Animal Kingdom, the Grade I Del Mar Oaks with Summer Soiree and the Grade I Matriarch with Gypsy’s Warning.
In the meantime, Darley, Godolphin’s breeding wing, bought a 29 percent interest in Animal Kingdom this week.
As a result, Animal Kingdom will stand in the Northern Hemisphere at Darley’s Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky., and in the Southern Hemisphere at Arrowfield Stud in Australia.
HERE AND THERE
Emollient, who, like every other filly in the field, finished well up the track to Dreaming of Julia in the Gulfstream Park Oaks last weekend, will come right back and try again today in the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland.
She’s 8-1 against a full field of 14, with Tuttpaesi the lukewarm favorite at 4-1 breaking from the rail. . . .
Horse of the Year Wise Dan breezed five furlongs in 1:00.00 on the Keeneland main track on Thursday, the fastest of 13 works at the distance.
It was his sixth breeze after a winter break, and trainer Charlie LoPresti said he’s good to go for the Maker’s 46 Mile on turf next Friday. . . .
The Pletcher-trained Jack Milton won the Grade III Transylvania Stakes on the turf Friday on opening day at Keeneland, holding off late-charging Up With the Birds by a neck. The favorite paid $7.20.
John Velazquez was aboard Jack Milton, who went three-wide to roll past Redwood Kitten (Elvis Trujillo) in mid-stretch, then turn back Up With the Birds (Shaun Bridgmohan).
Brian’s Time was euthanized at the age of 28 in Japan on Thursday after breaking his leg in a paddock accident.
He became a prominent sire in Japan after a distinguished racing career in the U.S. that included a win in the 1988 Florida Derby, participation in all three Triple Crown races and two races at Saratoga, a win in the Jim Dandy and a third in the Travers.
Brian’s Time was sixth in the Kentucky Derby, second to Risen Star in the Preakness and third in the Belmont. . . .
Montbrook, sire of champion sprinter Big Drama, has been pensioned to Ocala Stud in Florida due to declining fertility. . . .
Multiple Grade I winner Slew City Slew died of old age at Airdrie Stud in Midway, Ky., on Thursday.
As a stallion, he’s best known for having sired Lava Man.