It is a recurring theme along the Derby trail: a three-year-old annihilates competition in the early stages of the year at Gulfstream Park, gaining recognition throughout the racing world and igniting a flame that spreads like wildfire as people talk about said horse’s chances at the Kentucky Derby (GI). Frequently, this sophomore is in the hands of Todd Pletcher, considered by many to be among the best trainers in the business, but a man that has only trained a single Derby winner. But this does not prevent such a horse from making waves throughout the familiar road to Louisville.
Their names are fresh in our mind: Gemologist, Uncle Mo, Eskendereya. These three colts are just a select few “Pletcher monsters” that have made a scene at Gulfstream in recent years prior to running in the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) and earning themselves the attention of the racing world upon their arrival at Churchill Downs for the Derby. But of these three, only Gemologist loaded into the gate for the Kentucky Derby. He finished sixteenth.
Perhaps 2013 is the year this trend will culminate for Pletcher. Verrazano,a colt the trainer unveiled on New Year’s Day, is the latest horse to follow this path, gaining both a plethora of believers and an abundance of doubters along the way.
Named for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – once the longest suspension bridge in the world – that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn in New York City, Verrazano debuted in the sleek blue silks of Let’s Go Stable, pressing the pace throughout the six and one-half-furlong event while racing three-wide. Advancing to the vanguard at the top of the stretch, Verrazano took authoritative command of the race, coasting his way to victory and to the undivided attention of the racing world and a position on my watch list. He’d made his name be heard; now he would just have to validate himself as a true top-class athlete.
A month later, Verrazano took on winners for the first time. Leaving the fourth post in a small field of six, the son of More Than Ready immediately galloped to the front, but allowed Gunderman to surpass him on his inside as he rated in second. Tracking that rival down the backstretch of the one-turn mile, Verrazano effortlessly drew even with him as the straightaway gave way to the far turn.
Once he took the lead at the three-eighths pole, there was no looking back. As John Velazquez remained stationary aboard him, the bay colt put several lengths between himself and his adversaries. Appearing as though he was simply out for an easy gallop, Verrazano soared to a breathtaking 16 ¼-length victory, recording an impressive final time of 1:34.80.
Following this breathtaking allowance triumph, an interest in the dark bay colt was purchased by the Coolmore group consisting of Susan Magnier, Derrick Smith, and Michael Tabor, forming a partnership with Let’s Go Stable, who bought the colt for the price of $250,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
Remaining in the state of Florida, Verrazano traveled to Tampa Bay Downs for his graded stakes debut: the Tampa Bay Derby (GII). A minor bobble at the break did not faze him in the least; the Todd Pletcher trainee bounded forward, joining the front-running unit within a matter of strides. Rating along the rail in second around the clubhouse turn, Verrazano was angled to the outside as the field entered the homestretch, accelerating to take the lead on the outside of Falling Sky.
With a narrow advantage over that opponent, Verrazano raced wide, appearing relaxed. The two exchanged the leading position prior to the final turn, but once the track began to curve, Velazquez subtly urged his steed for more, resulting in Verrazano surging forward as the horses galloped around the far bend. Despite a rally from future Blue Grass Stakes (GI) victor Java’s War, Verrazano drew clear from the field under little urging to score by a 3-length margin.
Many felt that Verrazano would need to face at least a slight test before competing in the Kentucky Derby. He was shipped north to Aqueduct in New York for the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI), his final prep for the Run for the Roses and his last chance to prove himself before arriving at Churchill Downs.
Breaking very sharply from the eighth post, Verrazano took an early lead while galloping several paths off the rail as the sophomores headed towards the first turn. Racing wide, Verrazano allowed Chrisandthecapper to take the lead as the horses rounded the curve, permitting that competitor to extend his advantage on the field. But as the horses galloped down the backstretch, Verrazano closed the gap between himself and Christhecapper despite remaining many paths away from the inside rail. Christhecapper set slow fractions, completing the first quarter-mile in 24.89 seconds and the initial half-mile in 49.62.
With a half-mile remaining in the race, Verrazano suddenly shot forward, taking the lead as the field began their run into the far turn. Although he initially put a length on the field, the colt’s rivals grew closer to him around the bend, though Velazquez asked very little of him. Verrazano was a commanding leader as the horses entered the homestretch, but did not kick clear with the authority he had shown in his previous races. Vyjack – then an undefeated multiple graded stakes winner – tested him as Normandy Invasion made an impressive rally on the outside. However, Verrazano managed to dig deep and repel Vyjack, holding off Normandy Invasion’s closing strides by ¾ of a length.
Perhaps Verrazano had to work harder than ever before, but many had wanted the colt to face a test, which is just what he received. He has been criticized for the slow final time of the race, but the overall pace of the race was slow, which typically calls for a slow final time. All in all, the colt displayed the determination that had not been revealed in his previous wide margin victories.
The biggest worry surrounding Verrazano’s ability to be victorious in the Kentucky Derby is his pedigree. Although its ability to carry Verrazano to a ten-furlong win along with his sheer brilliance is suspect, distance indications are intricately laced throughout the lines of Verrazano’s ancestry.
Verrazano’s sire, More Than Ready, was fourth in the 2000 Kentucky Derby after fading in the final stages. A son of Southern Halo, More Than Ready excelled as a sprinter, with all of his victories – four of which were at the graded stakes level – being contested at seven furlongs or less. The stallion has primarily succeeded with sprinters like himself, but has produced a good number of distance horses, including Benicio – winner of the 2,500-meter (over 1 ½ miles) Victoria Derby (GI); Dreamaway – winner of the 2,400-meter (approximately 1 ½ miles) WATC Derby (GI); Traffic Guard – triumphant in the eleven-furlong August Stakes; and Ready to Lift – a group stakes winner at 2,400 meters.
The Derby trail is not a new scene for Verrazano’s tail female line. His half-brother, El Padrino, was among the top contenders for last year’s Run for the Roses, but finished up the track in thirteenth. Out of the Giant’s Causeway mare Enchanted Rock, Verrazano’s greatest hope for finding the winner’s circle at the end of a ten-furlong event could very well be his broodmare sire. A superior racehorse and sire, Giant’s Causeway won at approximately 1 ¼ miles on three occasions and has produced numerous distance horses, including Fairbanks, Giant Oak, Heatseeker, Hold Me Back, Irish Mission, Mike Fox, North Stream, Red Giant, Shamardal, and Swift Temper. Giant’s Causeway has also found success in siring the dams of distance horses, including the dam of the group one-winning Planteur, in his young broodmare sire career.
Verrazano’s second dam is the grade one-winning Chic Shirine, who also produced the graded stakes-winning sprinter Waldoboro and Tara Roma, a graded stakes winner at 1 ¼ miles. Although Chic Shirine’s sire, Mr. Prospector is a renowned speed influence, he did produce the likes of distance horses Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold, as well as the dams of routers such as Mineshaft and Rock Hard Ten. Verrazano is inbred to Mr. Prospector 4 X 3 and though the great horse is a major force of speed, inbreeding to Mr. Prospector has been an effective tool in producing distance horses, including the grade one winners Flower Alley, Shadow Cast, and Volponi.
From an excellent female family, the third dam of Verrazano is Too Chic, a brilliant racemare that won a grade one and set a track record. Although her greatest accomplishments came at a mile and a mile and one-sixteenth, the daughter of Blushing Groom was second in the ten-furlong Alabama Stakes (GI). She was also a spectacular broodmare, producing not only Chic Shirine, but also the champion Queena, who won up to a mile and one-sixteenth, and yielded the runners Brahms – victor of the River City Handicap (GIII, 9F) and the Early Times Hollywood Derby (GI, 9F), La Reina – winner of the Tempted Stakes (GIII, 8F), and Olympic, winner of the ten-furlong Mataji Stakes.
Blushing Groom, Too Chic's sire, is among the finest sires and broodmare sires of the breed. A winner of several championship honors as both racehorse and sire, Blushing Groom excelled at a mile but sired many distance horses, including Nashwan, Rainbow Quest, and Runaway Groom – all of which were grade/group one victors at ten furlongs or more. But perhaps Blushing Groom’s greatest success came as a broodmare sire, as he is the sire of the dams of a wealth of grade/group one winners, including those that have won at ten furlongs or beyond: Flute, Haafhd, and Mezzo Soprano. Blushing Groom appears in the bottom side of Verrazano’s pedigree twice, being the sire of Giant’s Causeway’s broodmare sire, Rahy.
Verrazano’s fourth and fifth dams, Remedia and French champion Monade, respectively, are both Reine De Course mares. Monade, a classy daughter of French 2,000 Guineas winner Klairon, is inbred to the two-time Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe hero, Ksar, who was once the richest racehorse in the world. This is only further evidence of the strong French influence in Verrazano’s tail female line.
Since day one, Verrazano has exhibited spine-chilling brilliance. His short but undefeated record – filled with primarily dominant performances – has yielded controversy over the colt, with a line dividing his steadfast supporters and persistent skeptics. But it cannot be denied that Verrazano exudes talent and though his pedigree may create worry that ten furlongs is beyond his limit, his ancestry does include multiple indications that longer distances are within Verrazano's realm. A colt carrying an excess of questions, we won’t know who the real Verrazano is until the first Saturday in May.