Verrazano crosses a bridge towards Kentucky Derby

Pletcher's colt shows why he's a favourite for Churchill Downs

Tampa Bay Derby winner Verrazano is a favourite for the Kentucky Derby on May 4. Image courtesy John Duca/Tom Cooley
Tampa Bay Derby winner Verrazano is a favourite for the Kentucky Derby on May 4. Image courtesy John Duca/Tom Cooley (verrazano)

TAMPA, FL — The puns wrote themselves: He crossed the bridge. Uncharted waters. Smooth sailing. And so on.

On Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs, the highly touted three-year-old thoroughbred race horse Verrazano, named after the bridge that connects Brooklyn to Staten Island in New York, passed his first big test en route to the Kentucky Derby by winning the Tampa Bay Derby.

Over 10,000 spectators were on hand to watch the Kentucky-bred colt, sired by 2000 Kentucky Derby runner More Than Ready, dominate the field of nine horses at the storied Oldsmar oval.

The win was convincing (three lengths) and not surprising: he had won his last two races by a combined 24 lengths (one length is the length of a horse), but there was still an element of the unknown, as his trainer Todd Pletcher explained.

“You always worry about the variables,” said the veteran conditioner, currently the most successful trainer in North America. “His first time shipping to a new place, the first time around two turns, the first time around two turns, the first time in a stakes [race].

“So we had a lot of variables he hadn’t seen before and he seemed to handle them real well.”

Until the Tampa Bay Derby, the furthest Verrazano had run is a mile (the Kentucky Derby is a mile-and-a-quarter), so it was time to be lengthened out and this race was a good test at a mile and a sixteenth.

“I don’t see another sixteenth being much of an issue,” said Pletcher. “To come here and get 50 Kentucky Derby points, everyone can take a deep breath and see what happens next.”

Verrazano, owned in part by a New Jersey-based syndicate called Let’s Go Stable, headed by Kevin Scatuorchio and Bryan Sullivan and part by a group of influential owners and breeders in Ireland that go by the name Coolmore, did not have a perfect trip.

He bobbled at the beginning and was thrust into an early pace battle with rival Falling Sky. However, the colt proved he was a man among boys this day, and easily galloped away from the field.

Falling Sky faded to third.

“Down the backstretch, I had a lot of horse and I just let him do his thing, said Verrazano’s jockey, John Velazquez. “I asked him for something in the turn and he had as much as I thought he would.

“We came away getting to the stretch and he was very strong running to the finish. It’s too early to talk about Derby rides but this is a very special colt.”

Verrazano now sits atop on the top of the Kentucky Derby favourites lists, and buzz around the possibility of an elusive Triple Crown winner is floating in the air.

The connections confirmed that the colt’s next start before the Derby would be at a mile and an eight in the famous Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Race Track in New York on April 6, where he will be asked to go a quarter of a mile farther against other horses desperate for a spot in the starting gates on the first Saturday in May.

It’s another bridge to cross, more uncharted waters for the big colt.  But for now, owner Scatuorchio is putting the puns and the speculation away to savour this win. He’s letting Verrazano the horse do the talking.

If you’re a fan of horse racing, you’ve got to love this horse,” he said. “He’s amazing.”