Verrazano solidifies No. 1 seed on Final Four Saturday

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Final Four Saturday is a sports fans’ dream day. The first Saturday in April frequently carries similar weight for the racing world.

Plenty is at stake.

Fillies are trying to get in position for the Kentucky Oaks.

Older horses are getting on track in premier sprint races on both coasts.

And oh yes, there’s the little matter of final prep races for the Kentucky Derby.

Unfortunately the two worlds collide, forcing horsemen and fans alike to keep one eye on the racetrack or television simulcast and another on the early stages of the opening Final Four contest, this year with some extra interest from the racing world with Rick Pitino’s University of Louisville Cardinals taking on upstart “Cinderella story” Wichita State.

Louisville is the No. 1 overall seed and if the road to the Kentucky Derby was seeded like the 68-team basketball tournament Verrazano would certainly be a No. 1 in one of the four regions. Orb would be another, with Revolutionary, Goldencents, Flashback, Normandy Invasion and others battling for the other two spots.

Thankfully racing isn’t determined by a committee of athletic directors and administrators, it’s settled on the racetrack. Like D. Wayne Lukas likes to say, “People have opinions. Horses have the facts.”

Verrazano solidified that No. 1 seed with a better-than-it-appeared victory in the $1-million Wood Memorial Stakes Saturday at Aqueduct.

The Wood was the equivalent of the conference tournament for Verrazano, something nice to win but not necessarily a prerequisite to move on to the Big Dance. Like Louisville did a few weeks ago with a win in the final Big East Tournament-the real Big East Tournament-Verrazano got the job done in the Wood Memorial.

Those are the facts.

The opinions will undoubtedly be he didn’t run fast, getting the 9 furlongs of the Wood in 1:50.27, and that he needed to work a bit harder than he did in winning the Tampa Bay Derby about a month ago. Other opinions will say that the final time wasn’t fast because the early pace was exceptionally slow for a Grade 1 race–:49.62 for the half and 1:13.74 for three-quarters-and that the win was indeed good because the two rivals to his immediate rear-Normandy Invasion and Vyjack-are legit, say No. 2 or No. 3 seed types. …

Did someone mention Pitino?

The veteran coach was probably in the late stages of a second-half pep talk in the bowels of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta as his Cardinals readied to take the court for the second half trailing Wichita State 26-25 when Goldencents, a colt he co-owns, held off Flashback to win the Santa Anita Derby.

The victory by Goldencents is dripping with storylines, from Pitino to Doug O’Neill heading back to Louisville a year after I’ll Have Another to St. Croix native and African American jockey Kevin Krigger. The Into Mischief colt is pretty talented, too, and benefited this time around from not getting into an early speed duel with Flashback, who also ran well and will be a threat in Louisville.

Louisville, the hoops squad, battled back and overcame a big deficit to advance to Monday’s championship game with a 72-68 victory over Wichita State, perhaps feeding off the good vibes across the country from Goldencents. …

Aqueduct

Anyone who talked with Nick Zito Feb. 10 at Palm Meadows was not surprised in the slightest when Declan’s Warrior upset a good group in the Grade 3 Bay Shore Stakes about an hour before the first Final Four game tipped off Saturday.

“He’s a nice colt, don’t you think?” Zito said that day as he watched a set train on the “clubhouse” turn at Palm Meadows. “I like him. He could be a good one for later in the year.”

Declan’s Warrior needed every inch of the stretch-which leaned toward inside speed for the early part of the Aqueduct card-to nail hard-luck runner-up Clearly Now on the last jump in a quick 1:22.09 for the 7 furlongs.

A Kentucky-bred by Majestic Warrior out of the Saint Ballado mare Comanche Star, Declan’s Warrior is certainly one to watch and to consider for later in the season. Can you say Travers Stakes? …

Swagger Jack seemed unlucky in his last two starts, finishing second to Fort Loudon Feb. 9 in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship Stakes going 7 furlongs and then the runner-up again behind Discreet Dancer in the Gulfstream Park Handicap at a mile. He got the better of both those rivals-at huge odds of nearly 16-to-1-in the first Grade 1 on the New York Racing Association calendar for 2013 in the 7-furlong Carter Handicap.

Trainer Marty Wolfson, never a fan of flying, made the trip up from Miami for the race and Irad Ortiz Jr., on the cover of Daily Racing Form’s DRF Weekend edition, was in the saddle. Some things always look easy after the race. …

Santa Anita Park

Beholder looked a lot like the Connecticut and made her five opponents look like No. 16 seeds with another flawless performance just before Declan’s Warrior won the Bay Shore in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks.

Santa Anita announcer Trevor Denman summed it up best.

“Absolute class. Beholder just too good.”

In front from the start under Garrett Gomez, Beholder won her second straight Grade 1 after taking the March 2 Las Virgenes Stakes. 

Owner B. Waynes Huges, trainer Richard Mandella, and Gomez were back in the winner’s circle about an hour later when Jimmy Creed won the Grade 2 Potrero Grande Stakes.

Keeneland Race Course

Juddmonte Farms and Bill Mott might bring an extremely formidable duo to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Oaks in Close Hatches, winner of the Grade 2 Gazelle Stakes the race prior to the Bay Shore, and Emollient, runaway winner of the Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland Stakes on the first Saturday of the Keeneland spring meet.

Emollient gave the suffering Lexington crowd-undoubtedly a bit melancholy with their beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats long gone from any postseason basketball conversation a year removed from winning the national title-something to get excited about with a blitzing win over what looked like a tough group in the Ashland.

Mike Smith showed why he’s in the Hall of Fame in the Ashland, going straight to the front and opening up a big lead, a huge advantage going 1 1/16 miles and with a short run from the top of the lane to the finish. He then posed for winner’s circle photos with new Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops, who might not have the same pressure as John Calipari in Lexington to get the job done but plenty of expectations. …

The ever popular angle of first-time Sheppard, first-time Lasix, first-time U.S., and first-time Rosie played out perfectly in a entry-level allowance at Keeneland in the race before the Ashland as Gathering stormed from last to win easily in her first start since Sept. 1. Mentioned earlier this spring by Sheppard as one to watch (see story here), the 4-year-old Street Cry (Ire) filly flew around the turn and in the stretch to win easily. …

Keeneland’s winner’s circle looked a bit stiff (maybe tense?) after the fourth when Howe Great defeated an aging yet classy group a bit overhyped in the press, giving owner Team Valor International and trainer Graham Motion a win the day after it was announced the two parties would split at the end of the month. The youngest member of the field as a 4-year-old, Howe Great defeated graded stakes winners Turallure (age 6), Al Khali (7), Air Support (5), and Forte Dei Marmi (7) in the 1 1/8-mile turf event.