JAMAICA, N.Y., April 9 -- If the rapidly approaching Kentucky Derby was a story in search of a plot, a star and maybe even a divisive figure to stir the interest of casual racing fans, the great race got them all in spades Saturday afternoon.
Bellamy Road, a colt belonging to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, simply crushed the field in the 81st running of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, running the prestigious 1 1/8-mile prep race in a stakes-record 1 minute 47.16 seconds, equaling the track record set by Riva Ridge in 1973.
Horses produced torrid times all day over the apparently suped-up Aqueduct dirt track, but there was no diminishing Bellamy Road's dramatic victory. Sent off as the 2.55-to-1 favorite, the dark brown colt went directly to the front under jockey Javier Castellano, shook off challenger Scrappy T after six furlongs and then steadily widened his lead until hitting the finish line 17 1/2 lengths in front of distant runner-up Survivalist.
The devastating performance before a crowd of 9,944 solidified the hand of trainer Nick Zito, who heads to Kentucky with Bellamy Road, Florida Derby winner and runner-up High Fly and Noble Causeway, and likely Sun King, who figures to go off as the favorite next Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
"Boy, he was unbelievable today," Zito said in a packed winner's circle. "He just kept going. I hope he stays this way for four weeks, and he'll have a good shot, too."
Asked how Bellamy Road compares with his other 3-year-olds, Zito said, "It's like a parent. You're not going to take one son or daughter over another. I'm happy he's in the family."
Steinbrenner, who reportedly skipped the race to watch the Yankees play the Baltimore Orioles, has owned all or part of five Derby runners, including Bellamy Road's sire Concerto. His farm manager, an Irishman named Edward Sexton, grew emotional speaking about "The Boss" after the race.
"You need a lot of luck in the game; maybe I'm a leprechaun," Sexton said. "He'll be 75 on the Fourth of July and he said, 'The one thing I want to do before I die is win the Kentucky Derby.' "
Bellamy Road began his career in the barn of Maryland-based trainer Michael Dickinson. He won his debut last August at Delaware Park by 7 1/2 lengths and then took a minor stakes race at River Downs. In his next outing, the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, he was challenged by Consolidator and wilted, finishing seventh.
With that, Steinbrenner transferred the horse to the barn of Zito, and he returned to the races with an electrifying 15 1/2-length victory in an allowance race March 12 at Gulfstream Park.
Entering the Wood, the lone question was whether Bellamy Road would fight back when challenged, but he never had to answer it because he effortlessly ran away.
"You might have seen the Derby winner right there," said trainer Robbie Bailes, whose Scrappy T fought the hardest to stay with Bellamy Road before fading to third. "We thought there might have been one or two [other horses] that would press that horse harder. But I don't think it would have made any difference."
Horses that win the Kentucky Derby usually do so with a solid foundation of races, but Bellamy Road will enter the grueling 1 1/4-mile race having made just five starts, only two as a 3-year-old.
"The game has changed," Zito said moments before breaking into a jog away from the throng, heading back to the barn to check on his horse. "We've been talking about that like a broken record. I'm happy to just be in the game."