Saturday's two Kentucky Derby prep races offer markedly different scenarios for interested parties on the way to Churchill Downs.
The Wood Memorial at Aqueduct features two of the top 3-year-olds on the Kentucky Derby trail, with the winner of the race the probable favorite for the Run for the Roses. Meanwhile, the Santa Anita Derby is a race in which the favorites are trying to get into the Derby conversation.
Leading the 10-horse field in the Wood are Tampa Bay Derby winner Verrazano and Gotham Stakes champ Vyjack. Verrazano is the 4-5 morning line favorite with Vyjack listed as the 4-1 second pick.
"He's been a rare horse who's been able to go from a maiden on Jan. 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. We're optimistic as he continues to develop he'll be able to continue to handle his assignments."
In the last Kentucky Derby Future Wager, Verrazano finished as the 7-1 second choice behind the mutuel field of "All Others" at 5-1. Vyjack was 10-1.
"Anytime you have a favorite for a race like the Wood Memorial, you're hoping everything goes well," Pletcher said. "Having currently the early favorite for the Derby is obviously on your mind, but you have to stay focused on doing what you would normally do for horses pointing to races and not get caught up in the big picture too much."
Trained by Rudy Rodriguez, Vyjack has the home field advantage with a perfect record in four starts at Aqueduct. The gelding claimed the Jerome Stakes to begin his 2013 season before capturing the Gotham.
"We think the horse is getting better as time goes by," assistant trainer Gustavo Rodriguez said. "When we work him, we like to put him in company because sometimes he doesn't pay attention. When we put him in company, he focuses."
Verrazano and Vyjack occupy two of the top four spots in the current NTRA 3- Year-Old Poll and each has 50 points in the Kentucky Derby points system.
In the Santa Anita Derby, nine 3-year-olds will do battle in the 1 1/8-mile stakes with 100 points going to the winner (the Wood Memorial winner also earns 100 points).
The two favorites, Flashback and Hear the Ghost, are exiting the San Felipe Stakes and will start next to each other from the two inside posts, respectively.
Flashback, the 9-5 top choice, got caught up in a speed duel with Goldencents last month and was overtaken by Hear the Ghost, Saturday's 5-2 second pick.
"What makes the SA Derby so exciting, is not only if you win it you punch your ticket for the Kentucky Derby," Flashback's trainer Bob Baffert said, "but it's ... one thing I've learned is that the mile and a eighth distance really starts separating the ones that want to go on."
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has again gone with Corey Nakatani as the jockey on Hear the Ghost after the pair successfully won the San Felipe.
"In his last race, on the day, it felt like it was a speed-biased racetrack in the San Felipe," Nakatani said. "and for those colts to run that fast and still be there and stick around at the end, like Flashback, he deserves to be the favorite (in here). Hopefully, Hear the Ghost keeps moving forward and he doesn't have to run his best race, but at the same time you want him to show positive signs going into not only this race, but the Kentucky Derby."
The outcome of both the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby will greatly clarify the Kentucky Derby picture.