The history of counted chickens warns against conceding the Kentucky Derby or even Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct to Verrazano. At least two others in the Wood field intrigue: Normandy Invasion, whose stumbling and haltingly wide journey in the Risen Star Stakes left him point-needy, should be poised to reach for a career-best effort in his second start of the year; and Vyjack, who's unbeaten in his Aqueduct-centric career, hasn't yet reached the summit of his potential.
Still, if anybody in this season's class of 3-year-old colts is going to achieve greatness one day, that somebody is Verrazano. He's unbeaten in three outings, his dominance measured by the 27 total lengths he has put between himself and three runners-up, and he hasn't even been fully extended. He is very, very good, comparable at this point in his career to Curlin. And Verrazano has an advantage that Curlin never had as a 3-year-old: there's neither a Street Sense nor a Hard Spun in this year's class.
The race desperately needs to produce a horse that will make an impact at Churchill Downs and not just galumph around the oval like a woolly Orohippus.
Verrazano, of course, romped in his first two races. And then, overcoming a bobbled start, he appeared to be cruising in the final furlong while winning the Tampa Bay Derby. At this point, based on demonstrated ability, at the distances he has run, he's not just better, but a few lengths better, than any other 3-year-old colt out there.
And so Verrazano is the odds-on favorite in the morning line for the Wood, 4-5 to win for the fourth time in as many outings; and, if successful, he's certain to inspire rapturous encomia about his impenetrable superiority. Some observers might even start tossing around silly comparisons or assuming prematurely that he has achieved something that's beyond momentary significance. People believe whatever they want to believe, or whatever's necessary for their own comfort, and when many believe the sport needs such a horse, he generally makes an abracadabral appearance.
And here's something else to consider, a context for evaluating Saturday's 100-point Kentucky Derby prep in New York: The Wood Memorial needs such a horse, too. The race desperately needs to produce a horse that will make an impact at Churchill Downs and not just galumph around the oval like a woolly Orohippus. Causality aside, for the moment anyway, in recent years the Wood Memorial has been to the Kentucky Derby what NYU is to the NFL. (Ken Strong, in 1947, was the last graduate of New York University to play in the NFL.)
From Gallant Fox, who swept the 1930 Triple Crown, to Funny Cide, who claimed two of the sport's most famous jewels in 2003, the Wood Memorial produced 20 winners of the Kentucky Derby. But Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 was the last Wood winner who also won the Kentucky Derby. And since Funny Cide, the Wood Memorial has produced as many Derby winners as, well, the Delta Downs Jackpot. In other words, since 2003 -- when, by the way, the race was still run three weeks prior to the start of the Triple Crown -- the Wood has produced no Derby winners, no runners-up either, not even a third-place finisher.
Of the 18 horses during this period that raced in the Wood and then traveled to Kentucky for a run at the roses, Tale of Ekati and Jazil gave the best Derby performances, finishing fourth (Jazil in a dead heat). And that total, of course, doesn't include Uncle Mo, who was a late Derby defection, or Trinniberg, another who raced at Aqueduct, winning the Bay Shore, just before faltering at Churchill, where he finished 17th.
In 2005, Bellamy Road won the Wood Memorial by more than 17 lengths but never won another race, finishing seventh as the Derby favorite; in 2010, Eskendereya won the Wood by nearly 10 lengths but never raced again. For nearly a decade, 3-year-olds coming out of Aqueduct either have disappeared or have failed miserably on the big stage, as if it's like going from Peoria to Broadway.
Retrospect suggests that, for the most part, with some notable exceptions, the horses coming out of New York for the Derby in recent years simply haven't been very good.
During the same period, Oaklawn Park's Arkansas Derby has become the most productive final prep for the Triple Crown, producing 20 Derby starters, who have two victories at Churchill (Smarty Jones and Super Saver), with two seconds (Nehro and Bodemeister) and a third (Steppenwolfer). Horses from Oaklawn also have won the Preakness (Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, Curlin, Rachel Alexandra) and the Belmont (Afleet Alex and Summer Bird). In fact, each year since Funny Cide, a horse coming out of the Ouachita Mountain region of Arkansas, or, in other words, from Oaklawn Park, has been involved in the Kentucky Derby superfecta. (Eight Belles, who won the Fantasy at Oaklawn, ran second in the 2008 Derby; and Papa Clem, who won the 2009 Arkansas Derby, ran fourth in Kentucky.)
So is there some causality at work here, some "dark matter" that deserts horses once they cross the Hudson, leaving them vulnerable? Does the mountain air invigorate the horses in Arkansas and have them ready to run the race of their lives?
Retrospect suggests that, for the most part, with some notable exceptions, the horses coming out of New York for the Derby in recent years simply haven't been very good. Since the Empire Maker-Funny Cide exacta that flipped itself in Kentucky, Aqueduct has been the place to go during the winter to avoid the best 3-year-olds, not become one. The best 3-year-olds have wintered in Florida or California, or maybe Louisiana or Arkansas. Funny Cide had been in New Orleans and Florida before traveling to Aqueduct for the Wood; Empire Maker had been in California and Florida. And, of course, all winter, and indeed until this week, Verrazano has been in Florida.
And so maybe there's no causality to be inferred. Still, it would be easier to believe that Verrazano is on the verge of the becoming the next somebody, and the belief when embraced would involve less anxiety, if he were racing next week at Oaklawn Park rather than Saturday at Aqueduct.