Verrazano entered Saturday's Wood Memorial Stakes with 4-5 odds of victory, and the three-year-old colt didn't disappoint. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez rode the horse to the winner's circle by three quarters of a length, overcoming a furious rally from Normandy Invasion.
The other favorite, Vyjack, consistently challenged Verrazano but couldn't quite muster enough down the exciting final stretch, eventually settling for third by just a neck.
One hundred points in the Kentucky Derby point standings were on the line for the winner at Aqueduct Racetrack, and Verrazano lived up to the immense hype in keeping his undefeated record intact.
If not for the late charge, Normandy Invasion would not have gotten the top-two finish he required to qualify for Churchill Downs.
All three of these horses are sure to be contenders in the first leg of the Triple Crown, and if the race in Ozone Park, N.Y., was any indication, the Run for the Roses is sure to be a thriller once again.
Perhaps the biggest storyline emerging from this race is the dilemma Velazquez faces leading up to Louisville. The renowned jockey has recently saddled up for trainer Todd Pletcher's Verrazano, but he also rides for another extremely fast horse named Orb.
Verrazano and Orb are now tied atop the point standings at 150 apiece (h/t The Daily Racing Form), which leaves Velazquez in a difficult position—even if it's a good problem to have.
HRTV's Twitter page logged the jockey's comments from Sunday morning, as he remained torn between the two promising Derby contenders:
Orb boasts slightly more experience, with seven starts to Verrazano's five, and has won all three of his starts in 2013. All of them have taken place at Gulfstream Park (h/t Equibase.com), which is an ideal training ground for May's ultimate horse racing showcase.
Meanwhile, Verrazano's dominance has occurred on shorter tracks. Prior to the Tampa Bay Derby—the horse's first time contending in a stakes race with two turns—he had won the previous three races by a combined 27 lengths.
That was followed by a three-length triumph in Tampa and Saturday's close call.
The narrowing margins of victory for Verrazano is partially due to a step-up in competition, a lengthened course and also because of the acclimation the three-year-old colt has experienced to the foreign track surface.
However, nothing indicates that Verrazano can't adapt to the Churchill Downs-esque terrain in light of those two high-profile wins.
Normandy Invasion's last-second explosiveness down the final straightaway should give trainer Chad C. Brown's team confidence moving toward Kentucky, while Vyjack's brass will have to go back to the drawing board after the first defeat of his career.
Don't be surprised if the victor at the Kentucky Derby emerges from this formidable trio, with the continually adapting Verrazano remaining the top contender.