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The unsuspecting Verrazano

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- If he weren't a racehorse, he'd be the perfect spy -- or, in these post-Cold War days of comic-book mythology, a great superhero. From his behavior and appearance, nobody would ever guess his real nature, or surmise his purposeful plan, or measure his true talent, at least not until he stepped out of a phone booth in those indigo tights. He's a paragon of deception.

Almost nothing about Verrazano is consistent with commonly held assumptions. He isn't what he appears to be, and he doesn't appear to be what he is. He looks like an overwhelming sprinter, a supersized quarter horse who would deliquesce under the strain of carrying his bulk around two turns, but he twice has won at 1⅛ miles. Sometimes he gets hot, sometimes he's sleepily lackadaisical, but almost always while training he seems to have allowed his thoughts to float in the general direction of overflowing feed tubs; but whenever challenged or called upon, he has responded with determination. Even his name is deceptive: Was he named after the 16th century explorer or the bridge?

But this is clear: At this point, he's the likely favorite for the $1 million Travers here at Saratoga on Aug. 24. And with Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice also aimed at the Travers, the race will go far, perhaps to the bank, in determining the season's champion 3-year-old.

Verrazano came out Sunday morning for some Travers preparation, working a half-mile in 49.05 seconds by the official stopwatch, and in typical fashion he showed little, loping along as casually as a beachcomber. Then, with equal indifference, he glided away from his designated companion for the morning. It was all so easy, so matter-of-fact, and the companion, by the way, was Jack Milton, a stakes winner who's aimed at the upcoming Secretariat Stakes.

"He's a very deceptive horse," Verrazano's trainer, Todd Pletcher, said about the colt. He has won four stakes and all but one of his seven races, but not until he breezed in company did he begin to reveal his talent, Pletcher said. The trainer conceded that to most observers Verrazano, because he's so muscled and powerful and downright huge, looks more like a sprinter than a horse that could win the nine-furlong Haskell by nearly 10 lengths.

"And anybody who saw the Haskell," Pletcher said, "would have to give up any doubt about this horse's ability to get the distance. That was a deep, tiring surface [at Monmouth Park], and down the stretch he made it look fast. When Power Broker [who would finish second] ran up to Verrazano, Johnny [Velazquez] asked him, and the race was over. In two strides, Verrazano put the race away."

Pletcher explained that Verrazano worked in company Sunday because of, well, his naturally and deceptively casual attitude. His stablemate, Palace Malice, worked by himself, in 49.02 seconds, and the Belmont Stakes winner did it easily, too, looking quite strong. Meanwhile, Orb, who hasn't raced since finishing third in the Belmont, arrived here Sunday afternoon. He reportedly has blossomed during his stay at the bucolic Fair Hill training center. With a victory, one of them could begin to put the wrapping on an Eclipse Award.

But Eclipse Awards aren't handed out in August, Pletcher pointed out, lest the God of Unhatched Chickens descend upon him. And, strictly speaking, they're not handed out either, but are won, on the track, and quite possibly the Saratoga track by a master of deception.