Thoroughbred Racing

Up the Backstretch: It's time for Verrazano to cross stakes bridge

By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

(Sports Network) - He is probably the most talked about 3-year-old in the country never to have started in a stakes race. Verrazano, trained by Todd Pletcher, officially begins his road to the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

Verrazano is a late-blooming horse who was not raced as a 2-year-old in 2012. The colt got to the races in January when he ran away from a field of 10 other 3-year-olds to win by nearly eight lengths in a maiden special weight event.

"He just had some baby issues that held them up a little while. He was ready to run mid-to-late December and just the timing of it wasn't a race available, so that's why he got started on Jan. 1," Pletcher said recently.

The colt's second start in February proved to be even more impressive as he posted a 16 1/4-length allowance victory as the 1-5 favorite versus four horses.

"I think he was most impressive in his debut and even more so in his one-mile allowance win," Pletcher said. "I kind of picked out the Tampa Derby because I like the spacing and we felt like March 9 was a race that could set him up for just about anything after that and would leave the window open for the Florida Derby back in three weeks. We also put him on a nice schedule for the Wood Memorial a month later and if we needed an extra week, then we still have the Arkansas Derby as sort of as a third plan."

The colt's stakes debut has been the most anticipated horse race this year as most handicappers have Verrazano clearly among the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Our own Jeff Frank has him leading the "Dirty Dozen" of Derby contenders.

In fact, Verrazano was the leading individual 3-year-old among the 23 listed in last weekend's Kentucky Derby Future Wager at odds of 9-1. The mutuel field of "All Others" was a tepid 3-1.

"He's a good-sized colt that carries his weight really well," Pletcher said. "He's been a pretty easy horse to train so far. He's very professional and he's got that unique quality of speed and stamina to go with it. He's come along really, really well over the last few months."

Without appearing in a stakes, Verrazano has surpassed Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby as the top 3-year-old among Pletcher's seemingly unlimited stable of Kentucky Derby contenders.

Frank points out that Pletcher hasn't won a Tampa Bay Derby since 2004 with Limehouse and the trainer had the last three favorites in the race.

Improvers of the breed will be able to gauge for themselves the quality of Verrazano Saturday at about 5:15 p.m. ET when he and jockey John Velazquez leave the starting gate in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby.

03/07 10:23:47 ET