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Sunday, July 28, 2013
Verrazano in a class of his own

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

At the risk of insulting some very good horses, it looked like a case of the lightning and the lightning bugs Sunday. But that's how good he was: ascendant, coruscating and authoritative. With his victory in the Haskell at Monmouth Park, Verrazano not only moved to the head of the 3-year-old class, but he also put himself in the discussion for Horse of the Year.

After stalking Preakness winner Oxbow for three-quarters of a mile, Verrazano effortlessly, almost casually, moved to the lead, and then, when asked, he drew clear to win by nearly 10 lengths over Power Broker, the largest winning margin in the race's history. Micromanage finished another six back in third with Oxbow, who held on for fourth.

The Haskell was the fourth stakes victory of the year for Verrazano, whose only poor effort came in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished 14th. But such a huge horse as Verrazano -- and he's a Cerberus -- figured to struggle on a sloppy track.

So how good was his Haskell? His winning time, 1:50.68 for the 1 ⅛ miles, won't turn many heads. At least none that are anything but very observant, for Monmouth was uncommonly dull Sunday. To put the effort in context, Pants on Fire won the Monmouth Cup in 1:45.86 for the 1 ⅙ miles, and Joyful Victory, one of the best older mares in the country, won the Molly Pitcher, also at 1 1/16 miles, in 1:46.09. In other words, Verrazano would have beaten them by about nine or ten lengths.

He made a statement today.

-- Todd Pletcher, Verrazano trainer
In the last 30 years, only three horses that didn't win a Triple Crown race have been named champion 3-year-old. And two of those, Holy Bull and Tiznow, won the Haskell. Holy Bull also went on to win the Travers. And after Sunday's race, Verrazano's trainer, Todd Pletcher, articulated the obvious by saying he would look at the Travers at Saratoga for the colt's next start.

"He made a statement today," Pletcher said about Verrazano. More than a statement, though, it was an announcement.

Of course, Pletcher also has Palace Malice for the Travers, and the Belmont winner sparkled while winning Saturday's Jim Dandy, running the 1 ⅛ miles in 1:47.37, with a final three-eighths in 36.14 seconds. And so the Travers looms as the race of the year in the division. Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, has targeted the Travers for his return, but he'll have to win it in Birdstone fashion, off a lengthy layoff, if he's to grab the crown. Oxbow, depending on how he came out of the Haskell after faltering badly, could show up.

The most serious threat to the Pletcher duo could be Will Take Charge, who ran second in the Jim Dandy. He charged home in 35.14 seconds for the final three furlongs, suggesting the 1 ¼ miles of the Travers could be his cup of oolong, and his Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, always has maintained lofty ambitions for the colt despite some discouraging performances.

And over the last 30 years, only one 3-year-old that didn't win a Triple Crown race was named Horse of the Year. That was Tiznow in 2000, when he won the Breeders' Cup Classic. Yes, Verrazano just might be good enough.

Here's an updated line on the race for champion 3-year-old:

1. Verrazano (4-5): He has the title with a win in the Travers or against older horses later.
2. Palace Malice (7-5): The Belmont, Jim Dandy and Travers would be a tripod that could support a crown.
3. Orb (5-1): He will not have raced in more than two months when he challenges the top pair in the Travers.
4. Oxbow (20-1): After his Haskell performance, a Travers victory seems unlikely.