Todd Pletcher has not had much good fortune with his 3-year-olds this spring. First, Shanghai Bobby, his Eclipse Award-winning juvenile lost the first race of his career in the Holy Bull.
Next, Violence failed to remain unbeaten with a second-place finish to Orb in the Fountain of Youth. The son of Medaglia d'Oro has since been retired. Then Overanalyze showed little in his 2013 debut running a lackluster fifth to Vyjack in the Gotham Stakes.
In between, the likes of Palace Malice, Forty Tales, Winning Cause and Notacatbutallama all came up losers in their 3-year-old stakes races.
The one bright spot prior to this past Saturday came in New York, where Revolutionary won the Withers Stakes on Feb. 2. The February foal barely ran past Escapefromreality to get up by a neck at the wire at 3-5 odds, and Escapefromreality wound up defeating just two horses in the Gotham Stakes a month later.
Given all of that, one might expect Pletcher to be a non-factor when it comes to the 139th Kentucky Derby. However, there is one top gun left in his holster and it's the reigning No. 1 choice in the Dirty Dozen.
Verrazano made his stakes debut this past Saturday in the Tampa Bay Derby, a race worth 50 points for the winner. That is an important number since the son of More Than Ready had yet to earn any Kentucky Derby points.
The bay colt also had never raced around two turns prior to Saturday. Even though the rest of the field consisted of just one two-turn stakes winner (on dirt), it was imperative for Verrazano to show he can handle the distance.
The race began with the undefeated superstar almost falling to his knees at the break. After sitting a length in back of Falling Sky through a quarter in 23 2/5, jockey John Velazquez pulled Verrazano to the outside and engaged the Sam F. Davis winner. The two ran as a team approaching the far turn when Verrazano edged clear by a length.
He increased the lead to 3 1/2 lengths through the stretch while Velazquez looked back three times for the competition. The jockey also hand rode the colt the entire race. In fact, Verrazano has never felt the whip in his three lifetime starts.
The final margin was a solid three lengths as Java's War closed for second. It was another 4 1/4 lengths back to Falling Sky, who finished third.
The time of 1:43 4/5 was four-fifths of a second off Street Sense's stakes record, and there is no doubt Verrazano could have run faster since Velazquez did not push him through the stretch.
Something else to keep in mind. Honorable Dillon won the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park the same day Verrazano prevailed by 16 1/4 lengths in an allowance race.
The former ran 7 furlongs in 1:22 2/5 while the latter, en route to running the mile in 1:34 4/5 hit seven panels in 1:22 1/5. In the Tampa Bay Derby, Verrazano finished 19 lengths in front of Honorable Dillon.
Everyone in attendance would have loved to see Verrazano dust the field by double-digit lengths, but there would be no reason to extend the colt in early March.
Given the bobble at the start, the wide trip and the hand ride, Verrazano ran a dynamite race and will look to add the Wood Memorial to his unbeaten record in early April.
FLASHBACK GOES DOWN IN CALIFORNIA
Flashback and Goldencents hooked up in more ways than one in the San Felipe Stakes. The top two horses in Southern California not only met for the first time but also battled head-and-head for most of the 1 1/16-mile race.
It didn't start out that way as Flashback settled into fourth as the field of eight passed the stands the first time. However, jockey Julien Leparoux could not hold the powerful gray colt, and the unbeaten 3-year-old moved up on the outside instead of sitting a few lengths off the early pace set by Salutos Amigos.
Flashback and Goldencents were two lengths in front of a fading Salutos Amigos and six in front of Hear the Ghost after three-quarters, clocking a blistering 1:09 4/5 seconds.
The two favorites were five lengths in front with only a furlong remaining. But the fast pace took its toll and Hear the Ghost flew past Flashback in the final few strides to win by a half-length. Goldencents faded to fourth, beaten 2 1/4 lengths.
Flashback was the best horse in the race despite the loss. There was no reason to run a 22 4/5 second quarter against horses doubtful to last the 1 1/16 miles. Thankfully for trainer Bob Baffert, there is still one more race before the Kentucky Derby to see if the colt can be rated.
As for Hear the Ghost, the gelding ran a very good race to gain the victory. Still, he needed approximately 31 1/5 seconds to hit the winner's circle while being hard-ridden through the stretch.
THE JEFF FRANK "DIRTY DOZEN"
1) Verrazano - One more hurdle to climb before Kentucky
2) Itsmyluckyday - Final start before Derby comes March 30
3) Orb - Looking for fourth straight win next time out
4) Uncaptured - Training well in Florida for Spiral Stakes
5) Normandy Invasion - Spot in Derby riding on next start
6) Flashback - Must prove he can rate going two turns
7) Vyjack - King of New York stays home for Wood Memorial
8) Hear the Ghost - Benefited from fast pace in San Felipe
9) Shanghai Bobby - Renews rivalry with No. 2 in Florida Derby
10) Super Ninety Nine - Pointed to Rebel Stakes this weekend
11) Revolutionary - Will run in Louisiana Derby on March 30
12) Code West - Will face No. 11 in Louisiana Derby