Wood a big stop on Derby trail

NEW YORK -- The good people of Brooklyn and Staten Island will be rooting for the horse named for the bridge that connects those boroughs of the nation's largest city, spanning the entrance to the New York harbor in a graceful arc. Local allegiance is strong, even here. In Tuscany, half a world away, Italians who follow American racing will note that the favorite to win the Wood Memorial on Saturday is also the namesake of favorite son Giovanni de Verrazzano, the 15th Century explorer who was the first to sail into this straight and for whom the bridge, give or take a double z, is named.

A week after Orb, in Florida, and Revolutionary, in New Orleans, brought the Kentucky Derby cauldron to a boil, a pair of undefeated 3-year-olds, Verrazano, who is already on the verge of international stardom by virtue of his name, and Vyjack, will thicken what is becoming a heavily spiced burgoo on Saturday at Aqueduct, in Queens, a race that has come together as the spring season's deepest Derby prep with three of this week's top 10 on the ESPN poll entered.

A month out, this is already the most highly anticipated of recent renewals of America's race, one graced by a wealth of developing talent. The Santa Anita Derby, also on Saturday, will contribute to confusion of the puzzle and the seeds of controversy have already been sewn by the inevitable exclusion of the brilliant filly Dreaming of Julia, a perhaps unintended consequence of the Derby's newly established point system, which requires females to compete against males in preliminary races in order to earn entry to the inevitable field of 20. There is much going on here and the sum is indeed compelling.

(Remember, Dreaming of Julia ran 9 furlongs last Saturday at Gulfstream two full seconds faster than Orb ran while winning the Florida Derby. Orb is now the Derby favorite pro tem. If Dreaming of Julia wins the Kentucky Oaks, there will be a groundswell of demand supporting her entry in the Preakness. Good stuff, even if we are getting ahead of ourselves.)

At midweek, the Todd Pletcher-trained Verrazano was designated the 4-5 favorite for the Wood, a strong statement by the New York Racing Association's linemaker. But Verrazano himself has done nothing but make strong statements in the nascent stage of his career. A convincing three-length victory in the Tampa Bay Derby last month was his third win after having begun his career on New Year's Day at Gulfstream Park and followed with a 16 1/4-length allowance score. Verrazano has in a mere three months navigated the road from obscurity to potential stardom on a never-more-crowded road that ends as do all roads at this time of year, in Louisville.

"He's been a rare horse who's been able to go from a maiden on January 1 to the Derby favorite on the first of April, which you don't see very often," Pletcher said. "He's been able to handle everything we've thrown at him so far and now we have another step to go. We're optimistic as he continues to develop he'll be able to continue to handle his assignments."

Verrazano is owned by a partnership that includes Let's Go Stable and the Coolmore principals -- of Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier and Derrick Smith, who paid an undisclosed but certainly princely sum for their share after his second victory. He is a son of More Than Ready from Enchanted Rock, a daughter of Giant's Causeway. Vyjack is the product of less than aristocratic bloodlines. The gelding is owned by Pick Six Racing and trained by Rudy Rodriguez, who has never saddled a horse in the Derby, is less exclusively connected. Yet, he is 4-for-4 with three stakes wins, the last a very impressive closing victory in the Gotham Stakes, and without doubt belongs in this company.

If some consider the trainer's lack of credentials at the very top level of the sport, David Wilkenfeld, founder of Pick Six Racing, is not among the doubters.

"I think I made a terrific decision in handing the horse over to Rudy," Wilkenfeld said on a conference call this week. "I wanted a trainer that could be very hands-on in terms of getting on the horse in the morning because the horse was very, very difficult to train at Fair Hill. We had to geld the horse as a two-year-old and it's something that most horse owners would prefer not to have to do, and even when he first got to Rudy, he was really difficult and, at times, he didn't even want to go on the track and train. So it's been a long process."

"Earlier, maybe we weren't training him the right way," said Gustavo Rodriguez, who has been supervising Vyjack's training. "Now, we train him differently and got him to relax. We changed the training. We put him behind horses, and it seems like everything is good with him. We think the horse is getting better as time goes by. When we work him, we like to put him in company because sometimes he doesn't pay attention. When we put him in company, he focuses."

Some, Vyjack's owner among them, see the Wood as a two-horse race. "I think it will be a good test for both horses," Wilkenfeld said. "I think, obviously, Verrazano is the best horse that we've faced, but I think Vyjack is also the best horse that Verrazano has faced to date, so I'm looking forward to the challenge."

They would be well served, however, to regard Normandy Invasion with a fair measure of caution.

His record may not be unblemished, but the Chad Brown-trained colt by Tapit has shown flashes of considerable potential and the ability to sustain a prolonged late rally -- the kind that wins races at 9 furlongs and beyond.

Normandy Invasion began his career at Aqueduct and will likely benefit from his only start this season, a troubled fifth-place effort in the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in which he overcame a nightmarish start to finish within two lengths of the winner. This is a colt who screams potential upset.

Though it is often the race that anoints the Derby favorite, the Wood has taken a toll on several of its winners.

"He came out of the race [at the Fair Grounds] in good shape," Brown said. "He probably needed that race for the last bit of fitness after the freshening. He's very fit right now, so I expect him to move forward off the race. We're confident he likes the track [at Aqueduct] -- it takes away one element of guesswork."

Winning the Wood is only half the battle. Though it is often the race that anoints the Derby favorite, the Wood has taken a toll on several of its winners. Toby's Corner came out of the race lame in his left hind leg after winning the 2011 running. A year earlier, Eskendereya missed the Derby with a soft tissue injury in his left foreleg after winning the Wood. I Want Revenge, the winner in 2009, nursed a ligament injury to the morning of the Derby before being scratched. Buddha, the winner in 2002, suffered a hoof injury. Irgun developed an abscess in his right fore-hoof after the 1994 Wood. Cahill Road suffered a pulled suspensory ligament in his left front ankle in the 1991 Wood and Leroy S. injured a knee in 1984.

On the other hand, 11 winners of the Wood have won the Derby, four of whom went on to win the Triple Crown. Notably, Secretariat finished third in the 1973 Wood and Funny Cide finished second in 2003 before winning the Derby and Preakness.

Immortality or footnote. Aqueduct is a fickle place.