One of Saturday's anticipated Kentucky Derby prep races lost some of its shine when San Felipe Stakes winner Hear the Ghost was scratched from the Santa Anita Derby and beyond because of a knee injury.
Earlier in the week, reigning juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby was given extended time off after his fifth-place finish in the Florida Derby last Saturday.
Unfortunate as it is to see two well-regarded contenders knocked off the Derby trail, this year's 3-year-old division boasts the depth to handle such setbacks. There are still a couple of unbeaten runners and another budding talent ready to make news for their potential progress.
The Grade I Wood Memorial doesn't have the greatest track record of late with three of its last four winners not even making it to the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby. But this year's edition might be different. Undefeated graded stakes winners Verrazano and Vyjack put their perfect form on the line against eight others at Aqueduct on Saturday.
With both Vyjack and Verrazano having more than enough points in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" qualifying system, Saturday is shaping up more as a mano-a-mano battle to see which has a chink that can be exposed.
In his three career starts, Verrazano has yet to find anyone who can make him take a deep breath, winning by a combined 27 lengths including his 3-length win in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby. Vyjack will try and answer his rival's raw talent with his multidimensional form, having rallied to win the Grade III Gotham Stakes after being on or near the lead in each of his previous three victories.
"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," said trainer Todd Pletcher of Verrazano. "He's been able to handle everything we've thrown at him so far, and now we have another step to go."
Added David Wilkenfeld, owner of Vyjack, "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."
On the West Coast, the already-favored Bob Baffert-trainee Flashback had his path to potential victory in the Santa Anita Derby made slightly easier with news of Hear the Ghost's injury. Hear the Ghost defeated Flashback in the San Felipe, but Flashback didn't lose much luster in that loss considering he got hooked into a speed duel with Goldencents that day and was still only caught in the final strides
Standing in Flashback's way Saturday are not only his stablemates Super Ninety Nine and Power Broker but the fact he will have to break from the rail.
"I always get jinxed when I come to the draws," Baffert said. "But Flashback is training well, and that last race toughened him up. He needed that."
The Derby Dozen
1. Orb: Trainer Shug McGaughey said this week the son of Malibu Moon "seemed pretty bright and happy with things" following his Florida Derby win last weekend. Orb again proved he could lay closer if a slower pace developed — which it did — and still put in a sustained run that seemingly has yet to reach its bottom. McGaughey said the colt will remain at Payson Park in Florida for a couple weeks before either shipping straight to Churchill Downs or making a stop off at Keeneland.
2. Verrazano: Bryan Sullivan, co-managing partner for Let's Go Stable, said everything he's seen from Verrazano "is something I haven't seen before." While Vyjack has owned Aqueduct, Verrazano's domination over a Tampa Bay track he didn't appear to relish suggests he won't be tripped up by a surface.
3. Revolutionary: In his last three starts, the son of War Pass has shown brilliance in his 81/2-length maiden win, tenacity in his trouble-filled Withers outing and old-school mettle in fighting off Mylute to win the Louisiana Derby by a neck off an eight-week break. A horse needs the above intangibles to have a chance on Derby Day and with his female family — out of the Grade I-winning A.P. Indy mare Runup the Colors — there shouldn't be any distance that would be beyond his scope.
4. Itsmyluckyday: No obvious excuses but no disgrace either running second to Orb in the Florida Derby. Considering he hadn't run since the Holy Bull on Jan. 26, he may well have needed the start as he has put together his best runs off relatively quick turnarounds of a month or less. "I had my reasons to give him the 60-plus days between the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby and I still wouldn't change anything with having made that decision," trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said the morning after the Florida Derby. "It may have made some difference in how he ran Saturday, but it was just a stepping stone."
5. Vyjack: Gustavo Rodriguez, who has been supervising Vyjack while trainer Rudy Rodriguez has been on suspension, said the gelding has been more relaxed in his conditioning and more focused when they work him in company.
6. Flashback: The absence of Hear the Ghost from the Santa Anita Derby field opens the door for him considerably, but he still needs to show he can relax while stretching out. "I don't know what (strategy) Bob has in mind yet," said jockey Garrett Gomez, who takes over the mount on Flashback from Julien Leparoux. "As far as right now, I've gotten a feel for him, and kind of gave him a test drive and it was an enjoyable ride."
7. Will Take Charge: Breezed 5 furlongs in 1:01 at Oaklawn Park on Friday. It's looking more likely that D. Wayne Lukas will train the Rebel Stakes winner up to the Kentucky Derby than shoot for the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland next Saturday.
8. Oxbow: Joined his stablemate Will Take Charge on the worktab Friday, covering 6 furlongs in 1:14.60 at Oaklawn in advance of the Arkansas Derby next Saturday. "He puts so much into his mornings. We end up trying to slow him down," Lukas said. He's always right there at the finish, but if he loses to another long shot next week, it will be hard to keep giving him credit for moral victories.
9. Black Onyx: He's already on the grounds at Churchill Downs, giving him key time to get adjusted to what some trainers like to deem a quirky surface. Can't discount the improvement he has shown in his last two outings.
10. Rydilluc: Trainer Gary Contessa said Friday the Palm Beach Stakes winner is slated to work at Keeneland on Saturday in advance of the Blue Grass Stakes. Contessa said Animal Kingdom's turf-to-Polytrack path to Kentucky Derby victory serves as inspiration that Rydilluc at least deserves a shot to do the same. "(How he looked in the Palm Beach) he looks that good on the dirt and he looks that good on the Polytrack," Contessa said.
11. Uncaptured: Trainer Mark Casse said he "couldn't be more pleased" with the colt's runner-up finish in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway, in what was his first start since winning the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last November. Casse is hoping that as slow as the track was playing that day, it served to put some added fitness into Uncaptured as he readies for the Blue Grass Stakes. "If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken him out to New Mexico and ran him at Sunland because the track was so fast there," Casse said.
12. Normandy Invasion: Has turned in three bullet works at Palm Meadows Training Center, most recently breezing a half-mile in :47.95 on March 31. He's diving into the deep end, needing a first or second in the Wood Memorial to make the Kentucky Derby field, but has shown an affinity for the Aqueduct surface with his maiden win there and runner-up effort in the Remsen.
The next dozen
Goldencents, Den's Legacy, Govenor Charlie, Elnaawi, Palace Malice, Departing, War Academy, West Hills Giant, Tiz a Minister, Java's War, Code West, Falling Sky.
Off the trail: Ive Struck a Nerve, Delhomme, Hear the Ghost, Shanghai Bobby.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.