03/02/2014 12:02PM

Exciting Gotham, and Other Notes

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For an immediate local stepping stone to a premier final prep for the Kentucky Derby, the Gotham Stakes has, frankly, underperformed. In its 61 years prior to Saturday’s renewal, the Gotham, Aqueduct’s prelude to the Wood Memorial, was won by only one horse who went on to win the Derby. And that horse was the incomparable Secretariat.

Obviously, history has taught us to temper our expectations when it comes to the Gotham’s impact on the Kentucky Derby. And that is important, because whether it is a truly meaningful one or not, the Gotham is still a milepost on the way to the first leg of the Triple Crown.

However, beyond the context of the Derby, the Gotham has shown over the years that it can be a stage for some very important horses. They may not have gone on to win the Derby, but no one can debate the impact made by such past Gotham winners as Native Dancer, Dr. Fager, Easy Goer, Lure, and Red Bullet, to name a few.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Samraat, winner of Saturday’s 62nd running of the Gotham, is the next Native Dancer. But Samraat’s performance Saturday was yet another indication that this colt, who is now 5 for 5, may well go on to be an important horse beyond whatever he might or might not accomplish in the Derby.

Right here, I should say I have a hard time talking about Samraat in the Gotham without also talking about narrowly beaten runner up Uncle Sigh, and equally narrowly beaten third place finisher In Trouble, because all three of them were terrific Saturday.

Even though he went off the favorite as by far the stronger half of an entry, there were questions concerning Samraat and the Gotham. It was fair to wonder how well Samraat would rebound from his tough battle with Uncle Sigh in last month’s Withers. And on top of that, Samraat was running back sooner than first planned. Samraat originally was going to pass the Gotham in favor of just one more pre-Derby start in a final prep.

Lost in the concern of what toll the Withers might have taken on him was the fact that not every horse is worse for having a tough outing. Sometimes tough outings make for tougher horses, and Samraat was certainly a better, tougher horse in the Gotham than he was in the Withers. For one, Samraat successfully came from a little farther off the early pace Saturday than he ever had before. He also had the wider trip than his two main opponents, getting caught three to four wide on the first turn, and three wide on the second turn. And for those who care about such things, Samraat took the worst of a five-pound weight shift with Uncle Sigh off of the Withers. Despite all of that, Samraat would not be denied.

Uncle Sigh ran just about as hard as Samraat in the Withers, and he faced the same question Saturday on how much that effort might have taken out of him. And like Samraat, Uncle Sigh instead was a tougher customer in the Gotham. Uncle Sigh saved a touch more ground prompting In Trouble’s pace, but he was in so tight between Samraat and In Trouble during the stretch battle that it had to compromise his performance to some extent. There were no fouls, but Uncle Sigh’s tight spot meant he couldn’t be ridden as strongly as he would have been with a bit more breathing room, and new jockey Corey Nakatani even suggested in post race comments that Uncle Sigh was unable to stride properly. And after that, Uncle Sigh was beaten all of a neck.

In Trouble had more questions than anyone going into the Gotham. In Trouble, who made it 2 for 2 last year when he won the Futurity, was coming off a five month surgery-related absence, and was going two turns for the first time. And though he got away with a somewhat easier early lead than expected (primarily because Uncle Sigh and Samraat took patient approaches), the way In Trouble fought back after being passed in the stretch to be beaten all of two necks was, under the circumstances, striking.

Here’s one other Gotham thought as we contemplate the exciting prospect of a rematch between these three in the Wood Memorial: Financial Mogul and Harpoon didn’t have the best 3-year-old form seen so far this year in Florida, but their Florida form was good enough for them to have plenty of wise-guy support in the Gotham. For what it’s worth, they couldn’t make a dent on the top three Saturday, finishing a soundly beaten fourth and fifth, respectively.

Quick notes:

Strapping Groom couldn’t have been at 100 percent when he won the Tom Fool on the Gotham undercard because of a foot issue that caused him to miss a start last month, and interrupted his training. But Strapping Groom, who, don’t forget, upset the Grade 1 Forego last summer, is a thorough professional. So the fact that the brilliant and undefeated Mean Season ran six furlongs 42 one-hundredths of a second faster than Strapping Groom did in his romp in the race before the Tom Fool just makes Mean Season’s injury hurt all the more.

I didn’t understand 2-5 on No Nay Never in the Swale at Gulfstream. At all. First time on dirt. First start since August. First time getting looked in the eye in a 22 second quarter on dirt. Unfortunately, I didn’t see Spot in the Swale, either. But as the fourth choice in a field of six, Spot ran away like No Nay Never was chained to the eighth pole.

Awesome Baby, who ran off with the Santa Ysabel at Santa Anita, and Teen Pauline, who dominated the Top Flight Handicap, also on the Gotham undercard, strike me as having similar profiles. Both were most impressive first out winners. Both were thrown to the Grade 1 wolves in their second starts, failed, and then required time to get their careers back on track. But the Santa Ysabel was Awesome Baby’s second straight stakes score, and the Top Flight was Teen Pauline’s third straight stakes win. One other thing both have in common. After capitalizing on uncontested leads Saturday, there will be those lining up to bet against them the next time they encounter contested pace scenarios.