03/07/2009 12:00AM

Gotham draws diverse group


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - In some ways, Saturday's Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct is the equine version of "American Idol."

Like "Idol," the Gotham has attracted wanna-be stars from across the country seeking their once-in-a-lifetime shot at fame and fortune. At this stage of "Idol," competitors must finish among the top three vote-getters to continue in the contest. At this stage of the Triple Crown chase, it would behoove a horse to finish in the top three in the $250,000 Gotham to a) convince their connections - their judges, if you will - to stay on the Derby trail; and b) start accruing graded stakes earnings which they will undoubtedly need to get into the Churchill Downs starting gate come May 2.

Horses from New York, south Florida, West Virginia, and California have descended upon Aqueduct to contest the Gotham, run around two turns at 1 1/16 miles on dirt. The Gotham leads to the Wood Memorial, a 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 on Aqueduct's main track April 4.

Thus far, Haynesfield and Mr. Fantasy have dominated the New York auditions for 3-year-olds, combining to go 5 for 5 on the inner track. Haynesfield has won three consecutive two-turn stakes. His connections are just as eager to see how he fares against stronger company as anyone else.

"This will be a good gauge as to where we stand in the national scene," said assistant Toby Sheets, who has overseen Haynesfield this winter for trainer Steve Asmussen. "He's done everything right up to this point. I'm very pleased with who we have coming into the race."

Due to a snowstorm that halted training Monday, Haynesfield missed his final workout for the Gotham. However, Sheets doesn't think it's as big a deal as when the horse missed three days of training prior to the Count Fleet, which was the least impressive of his three stakes wins.

Chuck Lopez replaces Ramon Dominguez - who will be riding in Southern California - aboard Haynesfield, who is drawn outside the other speed horses, Russell Road and Mr. Fantasy.

Mr. Fantasy, a half-brother to multiple two-turn stakes winner Tin Cup Chalice, has dominated statebreds in his first two starts, both on the lead.

"We know he's a top horse," said Art Magnuson, the New York-based assistant to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "Win or lose we will run well; we're pretty confident on that."

The McLaughlin stable will also run Axel Foley, who has raced exclusively on synthetic surfaces for his former trainer Doug O'Neill, who had been part-owner of the colt. He finished second to Chocolate Candy in the California Derby and fourth to that rival in the El Camino Real - both at Golden Gate Fields. Axel Foley will remove the blinkers he wore for the first time in the El Camino Real.

I Want Revenge also tries dirt for the first time. If he handles it as well as he does synthetic surfaces, he is probably the one to beat in the Gotham. I Want Revenge came within a nose of Pioneerof the Nile in the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood last December and was beaten just 1 1/2 lengths by that same opponent in the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita in February.

Trainer Jeff Mullins said he believes the Hollywood Cushion Track surface - where I Want Revenge trains - is more like dirt and the horse has trained very well over it. He jogged at Aqueduct on Thursday.

"I don't think he could be any better," Mullins said. "The thing about the horse is he seems to be getting better with every start. He's bred to run on dirt; I don't think he was bred to run on synthetics."

Imperial Council has run three extremely good races sprinting, but his pedigree - he's by Empire Maker out of a Thunder Gulch mare - suggests he should be better going long. Imperial Council runs off a two-length allowance victory at Gulfstream on Feb. 14.

"I'm excited about running him just because how well he's done since he ran," trainer Shug McGaughey said.

Trainer Todd Pletcher sends out recent allowance winner Masala and allowance runner-up Naos. Russell Road, based in West Virginia, has won six in a row, but gets a severe class test here. Giant Ryan, another New York-bred, tries two turns for the first time.

The Gotham is leg 3 of a pick four wager with a guaranteed pool of $250,000.