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The year was 1882, and the Kentucky Derby was only eight years old. That year a horse by the name of Apollo won the Kentucky Derby. At the time, he was the only horse to win the Derby without racing at the age of two. Now, 131 years later, Apollo is still the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby without racing at the age of two. If you are like me, it’s hard to imagine that being possible. We’ve had several horses come to the Louisville with a chance to break this streak, but none of them could get it done. So the question is…will this year be any different? Can Verrazano finally break this 131 year old curse?
Verrazano enters this years Derby off a huge performance in the Tampa Bay Derby, as well as a solid effort in the Wood Memorial. He made his debut on January first against Maiden Special Weight company, and the competition was no match. Soon after he dominated a field of allowance runners, which then propelled him to the before mentioned stakes races. His natural speed is a dangerous and effortless weapon, and if he breaks well he shouldn’t have much problem getting clear of the majority of the field and staying out of traffic trouble. That factor is huge when trying to maneuver through a twenty horse field. The horse certainly doesn’t know or care that he didn’t race at age two, and he only missed it by a day! Still, the doubt looms…131 years of history says he won’t win on the first Saturday in May.
I can’t help but think back to 2007, as well as last year, when I look at Verrazano. In April of 2007 Curlin rolled to a double-digit length win in the Arkansas Derby and stamped himself as the Kentucky Derby favorite. Curlin did not race at age two, but he left little doubt that this was the horse to break the curse. He had looked unbeatable in his three starts prior to the Derby. While Curlin went on to win horse of the year in 2007 and 2008, and retired as the all time leading money winner, he was a well beaten third in the Kentucky Derby. Curlin drew post two, broke poor, was shuffled back, ran greenly, and had nowhere to run until late in the race.
Last year, it was Bodemeister that looked primed to break the curse. Bodemeister drew a much better post than Curlin did, and also broke much sharper. It was blistering early fractions that did him in. After setting fractions that were astronomical, Bode actually began widening a five length lead in the stretch, before finally tiring and finishing second. It was one of the bravest efforts we’ve ever seen in the Kentucky Derby, but it wasn’t a win. Another year, another heart-break. Whether it was lack of experience or bad trips that beat these great horses will always be unknown. What is not unknown is the fact that they were both solid horses that were defeated in the Kentucky Derby.
It would be insane to call Verrazano better than Curlin or Bodemeister at this point, and he looks to have a few others things going against him. His sire More Than Ready is excellent, but not at producing horses that can run the grueling distance of a mile and one-quarter. More Than Ready was better when running a mile or less, and finished a fading fourth when he ran in the Kentucky Derby. His dam, Enchanted Rock, only raced once and finished tenth, so who knows if he’ll get distance pedigree help from her. The one positive could be Enchanted Rock’s sire Giant’s Causeway who could run all day long, giving Verrazano some distant distance pedigree genes. However, there has already been some whispers of distance problems. Verrazano earned triple digit beyer numbers for his three races at a mile and one-sixteenth or shorter, but received a 95 when going a mile and one-eighth, perhaps suggesting he may slow down even more when going longer.
One major positive for Verrazano will be his connections of trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Johnny Velazquez. Many people make a big deal of Pletcher’s poor Derby winning percentage, but he does have a win to his credit so that experience will help Verrazano. The experience of Johnny Velazquez could be an even bigger plus. Velazquez has run in hundreds of big races, so there won’t be any case of nerves or panic coming from him. The only thing that could complicate things is the health of Velazquez. He was injured in a spill a few weeks back, but has been saying all week that he will be 100% on Kentucky Derby Day.
Ultimately, the strength of the field could play the biggest role. As of now Verrazano may have an easier group to run against than Curlin and Bodemeister faced. The race looks a little short on high quality runners up to this point, but of course things could always change. Either way, there is no getting past it…Verrazano will need a peak effort and a lots luck to break the “Curse of Apollo.” 131 years of history doesn’t lie.
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