The Tampa Bay Derby was more of the same for the sensational colt Verrazano. He dominates his competition and he's clearly the fastest 3-year-old out there, and that's why he's No. 1 on my ESPN.com Derby poll. On the surface, Verrazano should win the Kentucky Derby, maybe even win it easily.
If only it were that simple.
History tells us that with horses who run that big that early the vast majority of time they are really hurt by the big effort even if they don't show it in their next start
”-- Jerry Brown, Thoro-Graph operator
There's more to this equation than talent and speed. Like any horse, Verrazano will have to be at a peak level or close to it to win the Derby. That he will come apart between now and then is the real fear. It has happened to plenty of horses that have followed his path early in their 3-year-old years.
Jerry Brown, who operates the speed figure and data service Thoro-Graph, is constantly looking at what works and what doesn't on the road to the Kentucky and with Verrazano he doesn't like what he sees. Is he a horse that has run too fast and too hard early and because of that won't be the same colt come Derby Day? Is he horse racing's version of the high school pitcher who hits 100 on the radar gun only to blow out his arm?
"History tells us that with horses who run that big that early the vast majority of time they are really hurt by the big effort even if they don't show it in their next start," Brown said.
The race Brown is referring to is not the Tampa Bay Derby, but Verrazano's win in an allowance race at Gulfstream in his prior start. He won by 16 1/4 lengths and covered the mile distance in 1:34.4. Thoro-Graph, and virtually every other speed figure maker, gave him an outrageously fast number.
Brown says he wasn't surprised that Verrazano won the Tampa Bay Derby. In fact, he says he's following the pattern exactly like the rest. The race after the huge race is often good but not spectacular. Verrazano's Thoro-Graph figure for the Tampa Bay Derby is still a big number, but it marks a decline from the Gulfstream race.
"His second career race was fast enough to win every Kentucky Derby but the one Big Brown won and possibly the one Barbaro won," Brown said. "But that's not as good as it sounds. There are many horses that have run that fast before the Derby and that has basically been the end of them."
Brown then rattles off a list of horses that have run very fast early on only to crash and burn. There's Eskendereya, who never made the Kentucky Derby and was retired. I Want Revenge was the hot horse in 2009 but was scratched the morning of the Derby. He didn't run again for more than a year and was 0 for 6 during his comeback. Bellamy Road won his 3-year-old debut by 15 3/4 lengths and the Wood Memorial by 17 lengths. He was seventh in the Derby, second in the Travers and never ran again. Brown can come up with at least six more examples from relatively recent years.
Verrazano's next start, the Wood Memorial, may answer a lot of the questions. Even a victory there won't satisfy Brown. He wants to see Verrazano move forward on his figure scale, which would be, to him, a sign that he wasn't that beaten up by his huge allowance win at Gulfstream. There is some chance that the horse is so freakishly fast that races like that are the norm for him and not something to worry over.
The primary exception to the "peak too early" phenomenon is Big Brown, whose career, thus far, closely mirrors that of Verrazano. He ran sensationally fast in an allowance race during his three-year-old year and then won the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But even he eventually fell apart. It just didn't happen until the Belmont, where he was eased.
The connections of Verrazano would take being the next Big Brown. To win two thirds of the Triple Crown means making your mark on racing history and that you have a very valuable stallion prospect.
But might they get the next I Want Revenge, Eskenderya or any other horse that has peaked too early and is far from his best come Kentucky Derby Day? That doesn't have to have happen, but it's a likely scenario.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.