Verrazano made his point.
Normandy Invasion got his points.
Everybody loves an undefeated horse in the Kentucky Derby, and they’ve got one now, after Verrazano won the 89th running of the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday despite waiting on the competition a few times in the stretch.
For now, at least, that’s a minor quibble for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Owned by Lets Go Stable and the Coolmore connections, Verrazano was unraced as a 2-year-old, but is 4-for-4 and has emerged in just over four months as the likely Derby favorite after his Wood win by three-quarters of a length.
“He hasn’t done anything wrong so far,” Pletcher said. “We still have some preps to go, but right now, I’d say he’s the legitimate favorite.”
Normandy Invasion needed to finish second to score enough qualifying points to make the May 4 Derby field, and he did so by catching Vyjack by a neck in the final strides, giving Mechanicville native Chad Brown his best Derby prospect as a head trainer.
“Although my horse didn’t win, he passed an important test to move on to the next round, so to speak,” Brown said.
It was by far the tightest finish for Verrazano, who went off as the 4-5 favorite under John Velazquez, who showed Verrazano the stick but did not hit him in the stretch.
He had won his previous three by a combined 27 lengths, including the Tampa Derby.
Verrazano, a son of More Than Ready, cruised to the lead past 77-1 Chrisandthecapper on the far turn and looked as if he might run away with the Wood on a sunny but chilly and windy day.
In the stretch, he didn’t sustain the momentum that got him to the lead, but he was well enough in control to hold Normandy Invasion and Vyjack at bay.
Vyjack, who came into the race undefeated in four starts, took the first run at Verrazano and nearly got to his flank, but dropped back as Normandy Invasion closed on the outside for second.
“I was like, he’s running good enough that I don’t have to hit him,” Velazquez said. “He kind of waits, and he’s looking at the infield, and I just kind of got his attention.”
“I think he’s still learning,” Pletcher said. “He has a tendency to idle a little bit and wait on company down the lane. I thought he did that a little bit today. It’s the first time he’s had horses real close to him at the finish of a race, so hopefully, every step we make is a learning experience and he learns to polish off these races a little better.”
Verrazano will likely head to Churchill Downs next Sunday.
Velazquez faces what he called “by far” one of the most difficult choices he’s had to make, since he’s also the regular rider for Florida Derby winner Orb.
“They’re two different dimensioned horses, but both are very, very capable of winning the Derby,” he said. “We have to make a decision sooner or later, but it won’t be today.”
Normandy Invasion has won just once, his maiden-breaker, but will see his stock rise after a troubled trip in the Risen Star and a good trip and ride under Javier Castellano in the Wood.
“He’s a horse that should have enough speed to at least adapt to a slow pace,” Brown said. “Javier allowed him to do that today by warming him up good and giving him a good, patient ride on the inside. He never really panicked, he waited for his seam, he got it and he was second best today.”
Close Hatches fought off Princess of Sylmar in midstretch to win the Grade II Gazelle, stay undefeated and stamp herself as a contender for the Kentucky Oaks.
A daughter of First Defence making just her third start for Juddmonte Farms and trainer Bill Mott, Close Hatches took the lead on the turn, then ran shoulder-to-shoulder shortly after they straightened out in the stretch.
She battled on as Princess of Sylmar, owned by 1967 Linton High School graduate Ed Stanco, tired in deep stretch and finished three and a quarter lengths back.
“She showed a lot of courage,” Mott said. “She went eyeball-to-eyeball with a horse that has a lot of experience, who developed a pretty good record over the course of the winter here and won several stakes.”
Long shot Swagger Jack closed on the outside to win the Grade I Carter, beating the horses who beat him in his last two starts. He was second to Discreet Dancer in the Gulfstream Park Handicap and to Fort Loudon in the Gulfstream Sprint Champiosnhip.
Another long shot, Declan’s Warrior, won the comparable seven-furlong stakes for 3-year-olds, the Bay Shore, by a head over Clearly Now at 12-1 for trainer Nick Zito, whose wife, Kim, is the principal owner of the colt.
Velazquez guided Withgreatpleasure to a three-quarter-length victory at 14-1 in the Grade II Ruffian for older fillies and mares to give trainer David Nunn the first graded-stakes win of his career.
Nunn had intended to race Withgreatpleasure at Charles Town in two weeks, but he was so impressed with a recent workout that Nunn took a shot at the Ruffian.
“She has taken me to places I have never been,” Nunn said. “I cannot say enough about her. I had no intention of running her here.”