It is time to move up in class. Time to win. Time to make the mentor proud.
For Verrazano, the 3-year-old colt named after a 16th century Italian explorer, life has been grand. He is unbeaten and unchallenged under five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, winning his first two starts by 24 combined lengths. He enters today's Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby as the individual favorite in the first two Kentucky Derby Future Wager pools.
Watching trackside at Tampa Bay Downs will be J.J. Pletcher, Todd's father, who broke and trained Verrazano at his Payton Training Center in Ocala. While the 1�-mile Tampa Bay Derby will be the first start at two turns and first against stakes company for Verrazano, J.J. Pletcher is expecting big things from the budding star.
"We'll be very disappointed if he doesn't go in another real impressive race," said Pletcher, 75, who has been involved with horses for 50 years.
The Tampa Bay Derby is consequential on Festival Day. With today's winner earning 50 points in the new Road to the Kentucky Derby series, a starting spot is virtually assured in the May 4 Triple Crown race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Today's nine-horse field includes Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Falling Sky, Davis runnerup Dynamic Sky, Hutcheson Stakes winner Honorable Dillon and local favorite Purple Egg. Verrazano, who has no Kentucky Derby qualifying points, starts from post 6 with jockey John Velazquez. The Tampa Bay Derby is Race 10 scheduled for 5:15 p.m.
Todd Pletcher is trying the same route that has produced his only Kentucky Derby winner. In 2010, Super Saver finished third in the Tampa Bay Derby before winning the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher is 1-for-10 at the Tampa Bay Derby, winning with Limehouse in 2004. But six of those starters advanced to the Kentucky Derby.
Verrazano's stock has risen after victories at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. After breaking his maiden Jan. 1 by 7¾ lengths at 6½ furlongs, he dominated a 1-mile allowance race Feb. 2 by 16¼ lengths.
"(His progress) has been pretty straightforward," Pletcher, 45, said. "What you saw in his allowance win was very impressive. He's very professional. He's got that unique quality of speed and stamina to go with it. He's come along really, really well in the last few months."
J.J. Pletcher got Verrazano in September 2011 after Let's Go Stable, owned by brothers-in-law Kevin Scatuorchio and Bryan Sullivan, purchased him for $250,000 at the Keeneland (Ky.) yearling sale. Verrazano was galloped regularly until the following February, when time came for his first breeze. The bay colt made an immediate impression.
"You know the good ones when you see them," J.J. Pletcher said. "They're like athletes and do everything so easy. When they do breeze, they're breezing easily and you think, 'Man, what's he doing?' You look down and he's going real fast. You can do whatever you want to with him — place him up close or come from behind. He is laid back and has got a real good mind."
After Verrazano's allowance victory, the Coolmore team of Susan Magnier, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor purchased an interest in the Kentucky-bred at an undisclosed price.
Verrazano didn't race at 2 years old because of sore shins, J.J. Pletcher said.
"That's something that goes along with real young horses," he said.
J.J. is familiar with Verrazano's bloodlines. He broke his sire, More Than Ready, and half-brother, El Padrino. More Than Ready was a Grade I winner who never won farther than 7 furlongs. He was among Todd Pletcher's first group of Kentucky Derby starters in 2000 and finished fourth. El Padrino won the Grade II Risen Star Stakes in 2012 at Fair Grounds in New Orleans and was 13th in the Kentucky Derby last year. El Padrino was the first foal out of Verrazano's dam, Giant's Causeway mare Enchanted Rock.
The last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882. If Verrazano can keep pace with More Than Ready, who started his career with five consecutive victories, the Pletchers would be pleased. That fifth win would come on the first Saturday in May in Kentucky.