If you're hoping to see the winner of Saturday's Gotham Stakes in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle May 7, there are two good reasons to be cautious. First, it has been 43 years since Secretariat became the last Gotham winner to triumph in Louisville. Second, the most accomplished entrant in this year's edition, Sunny Ridge, is that rarest of all things: a 3-year-old who is almost assured of qualifying for the Derby but whose owner plans to skip the race.
"The game plan right now is skip the Derby, run in the Preakness and Belmont, give him a break, and then run in the Haskell," said Dennis Drazin, who bred and owns the son of Holy Bull.
Drazin might be the only owner in America who would rather win the biggest race in New Jersey than the most famous race in America. Drazin has been a leading figure in Garden State racing as an attorney, executive, and adviser to Monmouth Park in recent years, and the Haskell is his Derby. Also, Sunny Ridge is a gelding, so no breeding-shed riches await a Triple Crown pursuit.
"He's a gelding, and hopefully he'll have a long career," Drazin told the New York Racing Association this week. "He could be a horse who runs until he's 8 or 9, so you want to make sure you don't press him."
Whether Sunny Ridge can compete with divisional leaders Nyquist and Mohaymen remains to be seen, but he has steadily moved forward in a six-race career that began with a debut victory at Monmouth Park last June. He also won that track's Sapling Stakes, was second in the Grade 1 Champagne and Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot, and won the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct last time out in his 3-year-old debut.
He currently ranks eighth nationally in Derby qualifying points with 18, and even a third-place finish in the Gotham (which awards 50, 20, 10, and 5 points to the top four finishers) probably would lock up a berth -- if Drazin changes his mind and wants one. He returns to the Withers surface and distance in the Gotham, where he is the lone stakes winner in a field of otherwise lightly raced and unproven prospects.
The running of the Gotham used to mean that racing had returned to Aqueduct's main track and the classics were right around the corner, but that was back when the race was four weeks before the Derby, a gap that has now grown to nine weeks. Horses used to run in the Gotham and then in the Wood Memorial two weeks later and the Derby two weeks after that -- really, you could look it up.
Now there's a five-week break from the Gotham to the Wood Memorial and another four weeks from the Wood to the Derby. The Gotham, once a one-turn mile over Aqueduct's main track, is now run at 1-1/16 miles over the inner track.
Under the old schedule, the Gotham had more urgency and attracted more quality. Native Dancer won the inaugural running in 1953, Dr. Fager beat Damascus in 1967, Mogambo beat Groovy and Tasso in 1986, and Gone West won it in 1987, with Gulch third. Easy Goer set the stakes record of 1:32.40 for a mile when he won it by 13 lengths in 1989.
Of the 10 editions of the Gotham contested at 1-1/16 miles over the inner track, the most impressive winner was the colt who was the morning-line favorite for the 2009 Derby. I Want Revenge, who had been solid but unspectacular while running on synthetic surfaces in California, made his dirt debut in the Gotham and won by 8-1/2 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 113. A troubled-trip victory in the Wood Memorial made him the clear Derby favorite, but he was scratched the day of the race with an ankle injury.
Since Easy Goer, the only Gotham winner to go on to victory in a Triple Crown race was in 2000. Red Bullet won the Gotham, then ran second between Fusaichi Pegasus and Aptitude in the Wood and was withheld from the Derby to prep for the Preakness, where he scored a 3-3/4-length upset victory over Fusaichi Pegasus.
We don't know if Sunny Ridge is that good, but at least there's precedent for a New Jersey-based 3-year-old winning the Gotham, skipping the Derby, and winning the Preakness.