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Verrazano gets win at Tampa Bay Derby

OLDSMAR, Fla. (AP) - Verrazano survived a small stumble out of the gate to easily beat the field at the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday.

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The win helps solidify the 3-year-old as a legitimate Kentucky Derby favorite.

The 2-5 betting favorite passed Falling Sky before the half-mile mark and cruised to victory three lengths ahead of a late-charging Java's War. Falling Sky held on for third.

Verrazano, who remains undefeated on the year, covered the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:43.96, returned $2.80, $2.60 and $2.10.

Java's War, a 32-1 long shot, paid $14.60 and $8 while Falling Sky paid $4.60.

The exacta paid $43.20 and a 6-4-9 trifecta paid $282.20.

Despite being a heavy favorite, Verrazano was making his stakes debut on a difficult track he had never run.

``He definitely showed us that he can overcome an early stumble and deal with a little dirt in his face,'' trainer Todd Pletcher said. ``We found out that he could travel well and handle two turns. All the things we were worried about he overcame them pretty well.''

With previous victories of 7 3/4 lengths and 16 1/4 lengths at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., Verrazano arrived at the track with high expectations.

After stumbling coming out of the gate on Saturday, Verrazano quickly went to the outside rail and battled with Falling Sky down the backstretch before taking a lead near the half-mile mark.

From that point on, the colt easily fended off all challengers and extended the lead heading into the final stretch.

Winning jockey John Velazquez said the horse cut himself a bit on the stumble, but settled down quickly.

``Down the backstretch I had a lot of horse and I just let him do his thing,'' Velazquez said. ``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.''

Velazquez rode five winners at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, becoming the seventh jockey to accomplish that feat at the track.

Pletcher said that Verrazano's next race would likely be the Wood Memorial in New York, but the Florida Derby and the Arkansas Derby are also options.

``It was nice to get this one today,'' Pletcher said. ``We're happy he did everything we hoped he would and looked real strong out there.''

In the Grade III $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes betting favorite Old Tune, also trained by Pletcher, held off Forces of Darkness in a photo finish with Mystical Star finishing third.

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