A pair of undefeated
Kentucky Derby contenders will put their perfect records on the line
Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack as they head a field of 10 classic-minded
3-year-olds in the 89th
of the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial.
From Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in 1930 to 2003’s Funny Cide, 20
winners have used the Wood as the definitive prep for the Run for the
Roses, and looking to follow in their footsteps are sophomore standouts
Verrazano and Vyjack. With an approximate post
time of 6:28 p.m., the Wood will be telecast by NBC Sports Network from
6 – 7:30 p.m.
The Todd Pletcher-trained Verrazano is odds on at 4-5 for the Wood, worth 100
points to the winner under the new qualifying system for the
Derby. The More Than Ready
colt likely has already qualified for the Run for the Roses by virtue of
his three-length victory in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on March 9.
Co-owned by Let’s Go Stable and the Coolmore
partnership of Michael Tabor, Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith,
Verrazano broke his maiden on New Year’s Day at
Park in impressive fashion and next scored an eye-popping 16 ¼-length allowance victory on February 2.
“He’s been a rare horse
who’s been able to go from a maiden on January 1 to the Derby favorite
on the first of April, which you don’t see very often,” said Pletcher of
Verrazano, named by owner Bryan Sullivan
after the bridge that connects Staten Island with Brooklyn, which was
named after Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano. “He’s been able to
handle everything we’ve thrown at him so far and now we have another
step to go. We’re optimistic as he continues
to develop he’ll be able to continue to handle his assignments.”
Pletcher himself has
had considerable success in the Wood, taking two of the past three
runnings with Eskendereya (2010) and Gemologist (2012), both of whom
were favored. Pletcher also saddled odds-on
Uncle Mo to a third-place finish in 2011.
performance in the Wood was extremely impressive, as was Gemologist last
year, when Alpha headed him, so we’re hoping for more of the same,”
said Pletcher. “Anytime you have a favorite for a race
like the Wood Memorial, you’re hoping everything goes well. Having
currently the early favorite for the
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.”
With Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez aboard, Verrazano drew post position 8.
With four wins in as
many starts, all at Aqueduct, Vyjack would appear to have the home-court
advantage in the Wood. Owned by David Wilkenfeld’s Pick Six Racing, the
Into Mischief gelding broke his maiden and
won the Traskwood overnight stakes at age two, and added the Grade 2
Jerome and the Grade 3 Gotham to his resume this year.
On or close to the pace in his first three starts, Vyjack showed a different dimension in the
Gotham, rallying from 10th at the top of the stretch on his way to an impressive 2 ¼-length victory over West Hills Giant.
“Earlier, maybe we
weren’t training him the right way,” said Gustavo Rodriguez, who has
been supervising Vyjack’s training. “Now, we train him differently and
got him to relax. We changed the training. We put
him behind horses, and it seems like everything is good with him. We
think the horse is getting better as time goes by. When we work him, we
like to put him in company because sometimes he doesn’t pay attention.
When we put him in company, he focuses.”
With 100 points in the
Derby qualifying system,
Vyjack – who is named after Wilkenfeld’s parents, Vivienne and Jack –
has most likely already earned his way into the starting gate at
Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but Wilkenfeld
never considered skipping the Wood.
“I think it will be a
good test for both horses,” he said on a Tuesday conference call. “I
think, obviously, Verrazano is the best horse that we’ve faced, but I
think Vyjack is also the best horse that Verrazano
has faced to date, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Joel Rosario, who last
Saturday won the $10 million Dubai World Cup aboard Animal Kingdom, will
be back aboard Vyjack, who drew post position 5 and was listed as the
4-1 second choice on the morning line for
Third choice at 5-1 in
the Wood is Normandy Invasion, who in two appearances at the Big A in
2012 broke his maiden and finished second by a nose to Overanalyze in
the Grade 2 Remsen. In his lone start this year,
the Tapit colt was fifth as the favorite behind 135-1 shot Ive Struck a
Nerve in the Grade 2 Risen Star on February 23 at the Fair Grounds.
Since then, the Foxhill Farms color-bearer has turned in three bullet
works at Palm Meadows Training Center, most recently
breezing a half mile in 47.95 on March 31.
“He came out of the
race [at the Fair Grounds] in good shape,” said trainer Chad Brown. “He
probably needed that race for the last bit of fitness after the
freshening. He’s very fit right now, so I expect him
to move forward off the race. We’re confident he likes the track [at
Aqueduct] – it takes away one element of guesswork.”
Javier Castellano will ride Normandy Invasion from post position 2.
McLaughlin, who last year saddled Alpha to a runner-up finish in the
Wood, will be represented Saturday by Shadwell Stable’s Elnaawi, who six
weeks after breaking his maiden, finished third in
the Grade 3 Gotham.
“With Elnaawi, it’s
neat this year because he wants to be where we’re at now,” said
McLaughlin’s assistant, Art Magnuson. “We’re not pressuring him to be on
a page he doesn’t want to be on. It’s stress free.
He’s come along, he’s maturing, he’s handling the training, handling
the races, he’s sound, everything is very, very good with him.
“Sometimes you’re under
a little bit of pressure to make sure you get there on the day,” he
added. “If he’s good enough, he is; if not we’ll adjust. But, as far as
leading him over there, no problem at all.”
Eddie Castro will be aboard Elnaawi, who drew post position 4 at 12-1 on the morning line.
Hall of Fame trainer
Bill Mott, who last saddled a horse in the Wood in 2008, when Court
Vision finished third, is back with Mr Palmer. The Pulpit colt is
2-for-2 in 2013, having broken his maiden at the Big
A on February 17, and most recently going from last to first in the
Private Terms stakes at Laurel Park.
“He’s mentally and
physically matured a lot [from last year],” said Leana Willaford,
assistant to Mott. “He’s an attractive horse and a good mover, and as it
turned out he’s going to be [a good horse]. He’s made
a steady progression almost every start. Some horses just take a little
Mr Palmer, 12-1 on the morning line, drew post position 6 under Junior Alvarado.
Trainer Tom Albertrani
will send out the uncoupled duo of Freedom Child and Quinzieme Monarque,
both of whom will run on Lasix for the first time.
Owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, Freedom Child enters the Wood off a 5 ¼-length maiden victory at
Park while Quinzieme Monarque returns to the dirt after a fourth in the Grade 3 Palm Beach turf stakes.
“Freedom Child was very
impressive breaking his maiden and last year finished second to
[Florida Derby winner] Orb in a maiden race at Aqueduct,” said
Albertrani. “We may be stepping up a little quickly, but
we have to take a chance to see if we have a Derby horse. With Quinzieme Monarque, we know he likes the distance, and we’ll give him one more chance on the dirt.”
Freedom Child, 30-1 on
the morning line, will leave from post position 10 with Elvis Trujillo,
while Quinzieme Monarque, who drew post position 3 under Irad Ortiz,
Jr., is also 30-1.
Rounding out the field
are Chrisandthecapper, an 11 ½-length maiden winner on March 9; Always
in a Tiz, fifth in the Grade 3 Southwest last time out, and Go Get the
Basil, second by a nose in an optional claimer
on March 7.