02/26/2014 4:00PM

Aqueduct: Samraat worth the wait for Riggio

Debra A. Roma
Owner Len Riggio in the Aqueduct paddock with Withers Stakes winner Samraat.

Len Riggio barely had time to savor his first graded stakes victory as an owner when he was attempting to win his second.

Moments after Samraat had outdueled Uncle Sigh in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 1, Riggio and his entourage crammed into a small office in the Aqueduct paddock to watch the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis from Tampa Bay Downs. Riggio was excited to see if Noble Cornerstone, the 9-5 favorite, could duplicate Samraat’s achievement. It quickly became apparent he could not as Noble Cornerstone, who had acted up in the starting gate, lagged well behind the rest of the field before finishing seventh in the eight-horse field.

While naturally disappointed with that result, Riggio still ended the day content with not only his first graded stakes trophy, but an undefeated 3-year-old on the Triple Crown trail.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

“Everybody thinks it’s easy – it’s not,” Riggio said by phone earlier this week from Florida. “This is a game where you get a whole bunch of smart people – bloodstock agents, trainers, managers – you sit there and you make an informed decision, a really good decision, and 97 percent of the time you’re wrong. We have to love the game  which we do. You have to be content you had a good day at the races, that you had a shot. Things have to break right for you.”

Saturday – a day after his 73rd birthday – Riggio has the chance to again experience the highs and lows of racing when he runs both Samraat and Noble Cornerstone in the Grade 3, $500,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. A victory in the Gotham virtually cements a spot in the starting gate for the May 3 Kentucky Derby.
Riggio said he wanted to run Samraat, trained by Rick Violette, in the Gotham because the horse is 2 for 2 over Aqueduct’s inner track, and he didn’t want to wait another month for the April 5 Wood Memorial. Riggio said trainer Wesley Ward wanted to run Noble Cornerstone in the Gotham following his non-effort in the Sam Davis.

Noting the different running styles of the two horses – Samraat races on or near the lead and Noble Cornerstone comes from well off the pace – Riggio doesn’t see running the two in the same race as problematic.

Riggio, the founder and chairman of the Barnes and Noble bookstore chain, has owned horses since 2001, but really increased his involvement in 2005. That year, he had Noble Causeway, a son of Giant’s Causeway who finished second in the Florida Derby but ran 14th in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Preakness.

That Samraat and Noble Cornerstone are both offspring of Noble Causeway and were bred at Riggio’s My Meadowview Farm in Water Mill, N.Y., near Southampton, is a source of pride for Riggio, who is a member of the New York Racing Association Reorganization Board.

“It’s totally satisfying to me because Noble Causeway was a metaphor for my career,” said Riggio, whose wife, Louise, and daughter Stephanie are also owners in My Meadowview. “He was our first big horse, the first horse that got to our hearts. Having his offspring basically bred on our farm in Long Island, getting to watch the two grow up, is as good as it gets.”

Tawnia MacKenzie foaled and watched over Samraat and Noble Cornerstone as weanlings. She said while both horses were laid back, they had different personality traits.

MacKenzie nicknamed Samraat Cool Hand Luke. “If he didn’t like you, he didn’t like you, plain and simple,” she said. “ ‘Stone’ tolerated everybody, but he liked the attention.”

Samraat is an ancient Indian title that translates to “Emperor” in English. Samraat is the last colt produced by the dam Little Indian Girl, who died last year when she fractured her pelvis shortly after foaling. Little Indian Girl does have a Harlan’s Holiday filly that is a 2-year-old this year.
Samraat has won all four of his starts, the first three against New York-breds. He beat another New York-bred, Uncle Sigh, in the Grade 3 Withers, dueling with that rival from the outset before pulling away by a length.

“Winning two races in a row is a real high metric,” said Violette. “Three races is almost irrationally more difficult. Four races in a row, there are only a handful of horses in the country that do that at any level.”

Noble Cornerstone won his debut at Aqueduct on Nov. 3 by 5 1/2 lengths and then finished second, beaten a neck in the $250,000 Springboard Mile at Remington Park. In the Sam F. Davis, Noble Cornerstone attempted to sit down in the starting gate and had washed out before the race. Ward called it “a non-effort.”

“This is really quicker than I like to run back, but I thought he was getting a little warm in Tampa so I thought this wouldn’t be a bad place to run back, where it’s a little brisk out,” said Ward, who is putting blinkers back on the gelding.

◗ A flight scheduled to bring Samraat, Noble Cornerstone and other Gotham runners from Florida on Wednesday was postponed to Thursday after the plane developed a cracked windshield.

One Gotham runner who had been expected to be on that flight was Monopolize, who trainer Todd Pletcher said Wednesday is likely to scratch and remain in Florida for a race.