The bandwagon's nearly full, the questions are largely answered and the doubts completely dispelled: Verrazano became the "Now" horse and jumped atop the ESPN.com Top 10 Derby Contenders with his convincing victory in Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby. That's three wins in three starts for the big guy who was unraced and unknown just three months ago, and he has won those races by a total of 27 lengths.
Verrazano bobbled at the start Saturday at Tampa Bay but quickly recovered. Jockey Johnny Velazquez persuaded him to back off the early leader, Falling Sky, and into a comfortable stalking position. Verrazano took control in the second turn and from there basically cruised home, without feeling the whip, to win by three lengths over Java's War, who rallied from far back to insist that he be included in any Triple Crown thoughts. So, can Verrazano (who was No. 1 in ESPN.com's initial poll) transfer his talent, which was dazzling in two races at Gulfstream Park, to a different surface? Yes. Can he succeed around two turns? Yes. Can he handle stakes competition? Yes, with aplomb. And so what else can he do? That's why the next three months are on the calendar.
Meanwhile, in California, Flashback and jockey Julien Leparoux had an awkward moment, Goldencents had a severe case of prom-night eagerness, and Hear The Ghost had a great day, winning the San Felipe at Santa Anita to put himself in the ESPN.com vanguard, at No. 9. After losing for the first time in his career, Flashback drops from No. 4 to No. 7, and Goldencents drops out.
With the new points system for determining the 20 starters, only four horses at this point are virtually assured a place in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby: Orb, Vyjack, Verrazano and Hear The Ghost, who all have 50 points. The winner of Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park will join that club. The Rebel is expected to attract a large group, including Super Ninety Nine, Delhomme, Oxbow, Den's Legacy, Treasury Bill, Big Lute, Will Take Charge and Always In A Tiz.
His victory Saturday could hardly have been more impressive. He sauntered into the winner's circle, completing the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.96 over a rather dull surface. (The Tampa Bay surface on Saturday was about 12 lengths slower than Santa Anita's at that distance.) He'll probably make his next start April 6 in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, according to his trainer, Todd Pletcher.
On Monday, he had his first serious workout since winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes, a half-mile in 48.40 seconds at Payson Park. Already having reserved his spot in the Derby lineup, he'll probably prepare for his Kentucky sojourn with an outing March 30 in the Florida Derby.
The winner of the Holy Bull Stakes worked an easy mile Saturday at Calder in 1:46.18. Most important, he reportedly ran the final quarter-mile in 24.63 seconds. Although he has been impressive, he'll need a good effort in the Florida Derby to punch his ticket to Kentucky.
The Withers Stakes winner worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.48 Sunday at Palm Meadows, in company with Capo Bastone, who's aimed at the Spiral Stakes. Revolutionary is to make his next start March 30 in the Louisiana Derby, where he should enjoy the long Fair Grounds stretch.
5. Shanghai Bobby
The champion juvenile of 2012 worked a slow five-eighths (1:02.90) Sunday at Palm Meadows in preparation for the Florida Derby. A top-three, perhaps even a top-four, finish on March 30 would put him in the Kentucky Derby.
6. Super Ninety Nine
With a five-eighths move in 59.80 seconds Sunday at Santa Anita, he appears to be training sharply since his romp in the Southwest Stakes. He's training so sharply, in fact, that instead of waiting for the Arkansas Derby, he'll return to Oaklawn for Saturday's Rebel Stakes.
In the clear coming out of the first turn, Flashback took off for the leaders in the San Felipe. The result was an exploding cigar (45.95 for the opening half-mile). And it indeed blew up in the faces of Flashback and Goldencents. But could this San Felipe be like the '97 Santa Anita, where Silver Charm took on the fleet Sharp Cat only to falter late? In his next start, Silver Charm won the Kentucky Derby.
He could prove to be one of the most admirable horses on the journey to the Triple Crown. He doesn't have the talent of Verrazano or Flashback. But winning requires more than talent. With his victory in the Gotham Stakes, Vyjack demonstrated uncommon versatility as well as a determination to overcome trouble. He'll take an unbeaten record into the Wood Memorial on April 6.
9. Hear The Ghost
Hear The Ghost and jockey Corey Nakatani let Goldencents and Flashback slug away at each other through six furlongs in 1:09.94. And then, when the time was right -- well, Hear The Ghost rallied to win the San Felipe by a half-length. But the race essentially collapsed under the burden of its pace, and the time, 1:42.34, was rather mediocre. (Earlier in the day, a claimer won in 1:42.80 for 1 1/16 miles.)
10. Normandy Invasion
He's one of the more intriguing horses on the road to Kentucky. He has the talent to win it all, but he usually finds a way not to win. Everything went wrong for him, for example, when he finished fifth in the Risen Star Stakes. But he'll get a new jockey, Javier Castellano, for the Wood Memorial on April 6.
Also receiving votes: Code West (14), Uncaptured (10), Mac the Man (9), Rydilluc (5), Power Broker (4), Oxbow (4), Tiz the Truth (4), Java's War (4), Titletown Five (3), Capo Bastone (2), Goldencents (2), Shakin It Up (1), Transparent (1), General Election (1)