Gotham champ faces drought on Derby Trail

March, 3, 2014

It's been more than 40 years since a horse managed to win both Aqueduct's Gotham Stakes and the Kentucky Derby.

Forty-one to be precise.

That was back in 1973 when a pretty darn good horse by the name of Secretariat pulled it off.

Since then, the Wood Memorial has been captured by some rather good horses, like Easy Goer and General Assembly. Some better than average horses, like Stay Thirsty, Red Bullet, Lure and Thirty Six Red. Some forgettable ones, too, such as Wasatch, Like Now and Badge. All of them had in common the inability to prevail against the best horses of their generation in the Derby.

On Saturday, Samraat joined the list of Gotham winners and he did it in a manner that was unquestionably exciting.

At the quarter pole, it was Samraat, locked in a battle with Uncle Sigh inside of him and In Trouble on the rail; the three of them in a line. At the eighth pole, the three were still glued to each other with a seemingly smaller margin between them.

It wasn't until the finish line of the $500,000 Gotham that there was some separation -- albeit a small measure of it.

Samraat, a New York State-bred, was the winner by a neck, keeping his perfect record intact and pushing it to 5-for-5. Uncle Sigh, also a New York State-bred, was second, another neck ahead of In Trouble, with the rest of the nine-horse field more than five lengths behind them.

On Saturday, Samraat joined the list of Gotham winners and he did it in a manner that was unquestionably exciting.

The finish mirrored in some ways the previous month's Withers, when Samraat defeated Uncle Sigh by the more decisive margin of a length. It also added some credibility to the Withers as the two New York State-breds defeated a quality foe in In Trouble, who had a built-in excuse. The Gotham was the first race for In Trouble since his victory in the Belmont Futurity on Sept. 29. Given that 5-month layoff, he figures to improve down the road from his 3-year-old debut and become a more formidable rival.

All of which fits in line with what awaits Samraat and Uncle Sigh as they try to make the huge jump from the first Saturday in March to the first Saturday in May. As much as Samraat has enough points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series (60, after earning 50 in the Gotham) so that his connections can start to reserve rooms in Louisville during the days leading up to the May 3 Derby, more will be known after the $1 million Wood Memorial on April 5 at Aqueduct.

Perhaps he, and Uncle Sigh and In Trouble, too, are legitimate Derby contenders. Yet Samraat might also be a winter-time hero in the Big Apple who melts as the weather warms and the stakes increase. Another Vyjack, perhaps.

A year ago, Vyjack came into the Wood Memorial unbeaten at 4-for-4 following a victory in the Gotham. He was sent off the 3-1 second choice and finished a good third, a length behind the victorious Verrazano and a neck short of runner-up Normandy Invasion, but the glow came off him. He was sent off at 18-1 in the Derby and finished 18th.

A similar fate could await Samraat. This weekend's round of Kentucky Derby future wagering, which closed before the Gotham was contested, showed little faith in him as he closed at 30-1 odds to take the Run for the Roses.

Yet it remains to be seen if Samraat will face the likes of a Verrazano, who was the morning-line second choice in the Derby. Cairo Prince, the 9-1 favorite among the 23 individual wagering interests in this weekend's future betting, is headed to the Florida Derby.

After that there's a bunch of question marks hovering above horses with much to prove and time running short. Hot horses in January, like 2-year-old champ Shared Belief and Honor Code, have cooled off in February due to injuries and now must play catch-up.

General a Rod or Top Billing, who were second and third, respectively in last week's Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, might opt to head north, but neither will bring the sizzle to the Big Apple that Verrazano did.

With a number of the leading Derby candidates facing their final Derby preps, there's more widespread confusion and uncertainty than in most years, creating a void that someone will fill.

Maybe it will be Samraat, who showed some class and determination in taking the Gotham despite a 3-wide trip for much of the mile-and-a-sixteenth journey.

It's a longshot, but after 41 years, a Gotham winner is surely due for a turn of better luck on the first Saturday in May.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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