Verrazano has experienced his share of extremes in a racing career that began on Jan. 1 of this year but is the prepost favourite for the Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Sunday.
Four months after breaking his maiden, the More Than Ready colt Verrazano was roundly hailed as the freak of the 3-year-old division and early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But when he crossed the Churchill Downs finish line on the first Saturday in May splattered in mud and drenched in the ignominy of a 14th-place run, many put the label of high-profile bust on him,
With the initial rushes to judgment out of the way, the connections of Verrazano hope the rest of his 2013 campaign will determine which of the prior assessments holds the most truth.
Thursday’s post-position draw for the Sunday’s Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park suggested there is faith the bay colt will continue to make good on his brilliant first impression. He was made the slight 9-5 morning-line favorite over Preakness Stakes winner Oxbow and five others.
“As soon as you stub your toe in this game, I mean, you’re yesterday’s news,” said Bryan Sullivan, one of the managing partners of Let’s Go Racing, which co-owns Verrazano. “We’re looking to get back on the front page.”
That a horse with three graded stakes wins and one loss in six career starts would have something to prove speaks to the level of ballyhoo Verrazano generated in the first few months this season.
When he followed his 73/4-length maiden win at Gulfstream Park on New Year’s Day with a 161/4-length romp going a mile on Feb. 2, Verrazano overtook many of his more accomplished stablemates in trainer Todd Pletcher’s shedrow in Derby aspirations.
Subsequent wins in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and Grade I Wood Memorial kept those fires alive, but the fact his winning margins got shorter as the distances got longer fed those who wondered if his talent could ultimately outrun his pedigree’s lack of stamina.
Indeed, that wall hit him square in the eyes in the stretch of the Kentucky Derby, when he backed up hard after sitting off the early fractions.
“I don’t want to say he gets no respect, but we crammed a lot in about four or five months to get to the Derby, and we spaced everything and we did it properly,” Sullivan said. “But to go from unraced as a 2-year-old and to the — you know, essentially the Derby favorite or co-favorite, was a lot to ask.
“As for what went wrong (in the Derby) … I don’t think he cared for the Churchill surface, to begin with. He worked good over that racetrack. But did he relish it? Probably not.”
Classic distances might be Verrazano’s Achilles’ heel. But his first outing after the Derby was a reminder of how stunningly he can carry speed as he captured the Grade III Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth on June 16 by 91/4 lengths.
Verrazano — who will break from the outside post No. 7 in the Haskell — lost his main challenger that day when Preakness Stakes runner-up Itsmyluckyday was pulled up in the 11⁄16-mile race. The gaudy final margin and facile way Verrazano went about his work in the Pegasus made it hard to envision a different outcome, regardless.
“It’s terrible to see something like that happen to a horse but I’m not sure anyone’s going to beat him that day,” Sullivan said. “With this horse, when he runs his race, I’m very, very confident. He’s that kind of horse.”
Some of the hype that dissipated from Verrazano was inherited by Calumet Farm’s Oxbow in the wake of his performance in all three Triple Crown races.
Oxbow’s runner-up finish in the Belmont Stakes was almost as impressive as his Preakness Stakes triumph, considering the fast fractions of :46.66 and 1:10.95 he was prompting in the 11/2-mile classic.
Though the tough-as-nails son of Awesome Again has thrived on the workload trainer D. Wayne Lukas often thrusts upon his charges, his Hall of Fame conditioner has only given him one recorded workout, a 5-furlong breeze in 1:02 at Churchill Downs on July 6, since the Belmont.
“The thing is, he puts so much into his works in the morning that I backed off,” Lukas said. “I didn’t work him in the heat (at Saratoga). I’m not going to. He’ll just gallop up to the race.”
Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul will break from post No. 3 in the Haskell as he attempts to rebound from a ninth-place finish in the Belmont while trainer Bob Baffert will saddle Grade I winner Power Broker in his attempt to win the race for the seventh time and fourth in a row.
“I was thinking about some other spots for him, but he worked so well the other day, that I changed my mind and sent him East,” Baffert said. “We don’t know how good he is, but this will be a good gauge.”