LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He’s undefeated and has never felt the whip. In an event that’s all about anticipation, no horse has created so much of it for this Kentucky Derby as Verrazano has. He’s 4-for-4 by a combined margin of 27 1/2 lengths, and Saturday, for the first time, jockey John Velazquez will ask him for everything he has.
HRTV’s Jeff Siegel, a very astute handicapper, can’t wait to see what that might be. “Of all the horses in this race,” Siegel said, “Verrazano is the one who could have a Big Brown performance in him.” That would involve stalking the pace, making a powerful move on the far turn and leaving everybody else behind at the eighth pole, as Big Brown did in the 2008 Derby.
“I respect his opinion,” trainer Todd Pletcher said Tuesday. “I hope he’s right.”
Verrazano drew post 14 on Wednesday and was made the 4-1 second favorite in a field of 20 for the 139th Derby. Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia made Florida Derby winner Orb (post 16) the 7-2 favorite, with Goldencents (post 8, 5-1) the third choice.
It was a largely uneventful draw for the leading contenders and for Pletcher’s other four horses — Revolutionary (post 3, 10-1); Overanalyze (post 9, 15-1); Palace Malice (post 10) and Charming Kitten (post 15), both 20-1. Mike Repole, Overanalyze’s owner, was thrilled, saying he wanted “between 9 and 15.”
“We did very well with the posts,” said Pletcher, who had to sweat out the possibility of Verrazano getting the dreaded rail, which is winless since 1986. With five spots remaining and post 1 unfilled, Verrazano’s number finally came up. “It was getting late,” Pletcher said. Black Onyx (50-1) ended up on the inside.
He also didn’t mind not being favored. “That’s an advantage,” he said. “There’s more pressure on the favorite.”
Orb’s trainer, Shug McGaughey, didn’t mind that distinction as he seeks his first Derby win. “I have a good post with a horse who’s doing well and is the morning-line favorite,” McGaughey said. “What more could I ask for on Wednesday afternoon?”
Nothing is more fashionable than knocking the marquee horse in a Triple Crown race, and many savvy bettors will try to beat Verrazano. Daily Racing Form clocker Mike Welsch characterized Verrazano’s recent workouts and gallops at Churchill Downs as “good, not great,” which will make contrarians more confident.
Pletcher had “very high hopes” for Verrazano last year, but shin issues delayed his brilliant debut until Jan. 1. No Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 was unraced at 2, another significant cause for doubts. In a race that’s always grueling and usually roughly run, being battle-tested can make all the difference.
“I think the horse who’s developed the most this spring would be Verrazano,” Pletcher said. “Going from an unstarted maiden when he woke up on New Year’s Day to the Derby favorite is a tremendous amount of development in a short period of time. It’s very rare you see that happen, and it speaks volumes for the quality and enormous talent he has.”
The nine-furlong Wood Memorial Stakes was oddly run, with a very slow pace set by an overmatched long shot. When Verrazano had the lead in upper stretch, many in the Aqueduct crowd were surprised and disappointed that he didn’t accelerate clear in a few strides. He never looked as if he would be caught and won by three-quarters of a length, with Velazquez saving something for the Derby.
“I think Verrazano has been unfairly criticized for not winning the Wood by more,” Pletcher said. “I think the longer he has a target to run at, the better. If he gets to the lead too soon, he has a tendency to wait.
“We haven’t gotten to the bottom of him yet, but he’s going to be unleashed Saturday. It will be interesting to see how he handles a mile and a quarter. I think he’s ready to run huge.”