The Wood Memorial Stakes serve as an exciting precursor to the 2013 Kentucky Derby, so it is worth checking out the favorites to see how their form will be entering horse racing's first leg of the Triple Crown.
One candidate for pulling off the coveted trifecta is Verrazano, but there are other viable three-year-old horses determined to give the dominant one a run down the final stretch. A valuable 170 qualifying points for the Derby are on the line, including 100 for the winner (h/t Yahoo!).
Here is a breakdown of the horses most likely to ride to victory on Saturday in Ozone Park, New York's Aqueduct Racetrack.
Note: Odds listed are courtesy of ESPN.
This fast, physical specimen of a colt is the prohibitive favorite to win. As Gary West of ESPN points out, Verrazano is unbeaten in three previous appearances, winning by a total of 27 lengths.
After a narrower, three-length triumph in his most recent race in the Tampa Bay Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher described what makes Verrazano so special to the USA TODAY's Jennie Rees:
He's got that "wow!" factor, and he's got a couple of wow races so far...Tampa is a surface that I wouldn't compare to a synthetic, but it's similar in that it's hard to really look awesome on it. It's just not glib enough for horses to devastate other horses on it, maybe. But the fact that he was able to go there and handle it first time out, first time around two turns and all that, I thought … it was maybe more impressive than the final margin looks.
Bryan Sullivan was half of the partnership that initially purchased Verrazano, and believes that the colt's best is yet to come. That is quite a strong statement considering how dominant Verrazano has been in his brief history, but it is also coming from someone who had the eye for the horse's talent enough to invest early on.
As Rees indicates, Bellamy Road won the 2005 Wood Memorial by 17 and a half lengths before tumbling to seventh in the Race for the Roses.
Such a collapse is rather unlikely for a horse of Verraano's caliber without much wear and tear, though, and it would not be surprising to see another runaway victory.
Undefeated in four previous starts, the Kentucky-bred colt is primed to have a solid showing in the tune-up for his grand home state showcase.
Pick Three Racing's David Wilkenfeld owns Vyjack, and feels supremely confident in his horse based on the stellar results to date, as documented by Steve Haskin for ESPN:
Obviously, I go into every race with the expectation we can win and this is no exception. We're not looking at this as a prep. He worked terrifically and we're expecting him to run well. If he doesn't we'll have no excuses other than we ran into a horse faster than us.
This is going be quite the test squaring off against Verrazano, and Wilkenfeld intimated that he didn't want Vyjack to have too tough of a race leading up to the Derby. However, with a spot in Kentucky already secured, there is not a lot of pressure to come out on top.
Experienced jockey Joel Rosario will be in the saddle, and he has finished in the top-five in the National Earnings list for jockeys for the past four years running (h/t Equibase.com).
That should provide Vyjack with a strong showing regardless, as Rosario's prowess stacks up favorably to that of Verrazano's John R. Velazquez.
Normandy Invasion (5-1)
This is essentially a must-win situation, as Normandy Invasion needs to finish in the top-two in order to qualify for the Derby.
Doing so will be a tall task, but the aforementioned two favorites will exercise caution if anything, while Normandy Invasion will be riding with reckless abandon.
The key will be for the horse to not get off to too fast of a start. Normandy Invasion must pace himself, and he just got a massive boost by acquiring the services of jockey Javier Castellano, who leads the earnings list in 2013.
In his last outing at Aqueduct on November 24, Normandy Invasion lost by a nose to 3-2 favorite Overanalyze (h/t SportsNetwork.com). So there is positive experience to draw on in that regard, as the horse has proven he can compete on this particular track.
Verrazano has been more of a one-mile horse thus far, and the potentially conservative strategy that Vyjack's team may deploy gives Normandy Invasion a legitimate chance at making it to Louisville.