Verrazano was a fearsome favorite in last weekend's Grade II Tampa Bay Derby because, despite questions about his inexperience, there was just no arguing how superior his form was compared to his opponents that day.
When the 11-horse field for the Grade II Rebel Stakes goes to post at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, Super Ninety Nine might be considered even more of an overwhelming choice than his 3-to-2 morning-line odds suggest.
He dusted some of the same challengers by 111/4 lengths in the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 18 and the son of Pulpit is unbeaten going two turns.
But when evaluating the colt's potential outcome for this race, the key piece of information might be the man listed as his trainer.
The level of domination Hall of Famer Bob Baffert has had shipping horses from California to Oaklawn Park over the years is equal parts astonishing and terrifying, depending on which side of the cheering fence you fall on.
With 29 lifetime starters at the Hot Springs track, Baffert has saddled 17 winners and 13 graded stakes victors. He's won the last three Rebel Stakes with Lookin At Lucky (2010), The Factor (2011) and Secret Circle (2012).
Last season Baffert won six of the eight graded stakes he entered at Oaklawn, most notably the Grade I Arkansas Derby with eventual Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes runner-up Bodemeister.
Because Baffert doesn't send his prospects to Arkansas unless he thinks they are ready to do something special, Super Ninety Nine and his stablemate and fellow Rebel Stakes contender Den's Legacy are further elevated by that association.
Though his frame and pedigree suggests more a miler, Super Ninety Nine handled the 11⁄16-mile Southwest Stakes like a horse who wanted more and has had two stellar workouts since.
Den's Legacy has been consistent in his 10 starts, finishing off the board twice and most recently running second in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes.
The D. Wayne Lukas-trained duo of Oxbow and Will Take Charge are among those trying to thwart Baffert, as will the Todd Pletcher-trained Delhomme, who is making his season debut.
Though Baffert isn't slated to make the trip to Arkansas, his challengers will be trying to beat him in what has essentially become his house.
The Derby Dozen
1. Itsmyluckyday: Seasoned son of Lawyer Ron worked one mile in 1:46 flat at Calder last Saturday in a move trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. described as "perfect." Verrazano has been the most brilliant member of this class, but Itsmyluckyday has the experience edge with nine starts.
2. Verrazano: His 3-length victory in the Tampa Bay Derby last weekend drove home why this son of More Than Ready has generated such excitement. He bobbled at the start and didn't appear to relish the surface, yet still handled his competition with freakish ease. Was fitting how much Verrazano towered over Falling Sky as he went by that one to take the lead because he has dwarfed everything in his wake in three career starts. The Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 6 is slated for Verrazano's final prep.
3. Orb: Trainer Shug McGaughey said he "couldn't be more pleased" with the way Orb looked covering 4 furlongs in :48.40 at Payson Park on Monday, his first move since winning the Grade II Fountain of Youth. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who piloted Orb in the Fountain of Youth and will be aboard him for the Grade I Florida Derby on March 30, could have a Sophie's Choice Kentucky Derby mount moment as he also rides Verrazano for Pletcher. When asked about the possible situation, McGaughey said he would "cross that bridge when we come to it."
4. Vyjack: Unbeaten gelding worked a half mile in :51.23 at Aqueduct on Friday in his first move since taking the Gotham Stakes. Downer news came this week as various outlets reported trainer Rudy Rodriguez would serve a 20-day suspension for two flunixin positives last year, though he will be the trainer of record when Vyjack starts in the Wood Memorial, according to Daily Racing Form. Vyjack has done nothing wrong on the track and the fact he showed a new, late-running dimension in the Gotham adds more intrigue to his slated meeting against Verrazano.
5. Revolutionary: His potential challengers for the Louisiana Derby shrank by one when Risen Star Stakes winner Ive Struck a Nerve sustained an ankle injury during a workout last Saturday morning that will knock him off the Triple Crown trail. Revolutionary continues to go about his business, working 5 furlongs in 1:01.48 at Palm Meadows last Sunday.
6. Shanghai Bobby: Reigning juvenile champion clicked off another 5-furlong move Sunday, covering the distance in 1:02.90. His expected presence in the Florida Derby, along with Orb and Itsmyluckyday, appears to be scaring some off as there doesn't seem to be many others pointing to that spot at the moment. Is being overshadowed by some Pletcher-trained stablemates but fact remains he has never not fired in a race.
7. Hear the Ghost: Yes, he benefited from the pace duel that developed between Flashback and Goldencents in winning the Grade II San Felipe last weekend but it's hard not to like a horse who swallows up ground the way the gelding son of Ghostzapper did in the final sixteenth. Trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Hear the Ghost was making just his third career start and stretching out for the first time in the 11⁄16-mile San Felipe having broken his maiden at Hollywood Park last December and running second in the San Pedro at Santa Anita on Jan. 21. "You don't see too many horses do what he's done and not turn out to be a pretty good horse," jockey Corey Nakatani said. Rematch with Flashback is on tap in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 6.
8. Flashback: The speed duel that set things up for Hear the Ghost cost jockey Julien Leparoux the mount on Flashback as agent Tony Matos confirmed Thursday that Garrett Gomez will ride the son of Tapit in the Santa Anita Derby. Leparoux stood by his decision to move Flashback out from the rail and engage Goldencents around the first turn, and the gray colt was only caught by half a length at the wire. Still, that move did nothing to help the cause of getting Flashback to relax.
9. Normandy Invasion: Like Flashback, he will also have a new rider for his final Derby prep as owner Rick Porter announced this week that Javier Castellano would ride Normandy Invasion in the Wood Memorial, taking over for Jose Lezcano after the pair's fifth-place finish in the Risen Star. Pretty much has to run first or second in the Wood to earn enough points to definitely make the Kentucky Derby field, a task that got that much more daunting when it was announced Verrazano would likely be in the gate, too.
10. Oxbow: Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas describes him as one of the toughest horses he's ever conditioned, saying there is no quit in the son of Awesome Again. Will need that mettle against a field of 10 in the Rebel Stakes, and how he performs will serve as a barometer in how we further evaluate the odd results of the Risen Star, where he ran fourth.
11. Super Ninety Nine: Baffert says this colt is built like a sprinter, yet he has turned a corner going two turns, including his freaky 111/4-length win over a sealed, sloppy track in the Southwest Stakes. Figures to have more pace pressure on him in the Rebel and drew the outside post No. 11 in the field.
12. Rydilluc: Worked 5 furlongs in 1:02.02 on the turf at Palm Meadows on Thursday in preparation for his expected start in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 13. His form has been on turf, but Animal Kingdom's 2011 Kentucky Derby triumph proved the transition can be done.
The next dozen
Shakin It Up, Uncaptured, Goldencents, Treasury Bill, Palace Malice, Delhomme, West Hills Giant, Tiz a Minister, Den's Legacy, Java's War, Code West, Departing,
Off the trail: Ive Struck a Nerve.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.