02/27/2014 3:44PM

Jay Hovdey: Gotham's glory days long gone

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Michael Amoruso
Samraat will try to win the Gotham Stakes, which has a rich history but hasn't had much of an impact on the Triple Crown for years.

You’ve got to hand it to the Gotham Stakes. If it had a voice and could wave its arms, it would be up on a tabletop shouting, “I am somebody! I am somebody!”

To be fair it was, once upon a time, when for more than 40 years the Gotham had a safe and secure home as a one-turn mile over the Aqueduct main track on a date not normally associated with snowfall.

“It was huge then,” said Richie Migliore, who regularly rode winters in New York. “It was always a big deal to ride the race. And even when I was growing up it was a race you paid attention to, because that’s where New York’s Derby horses showed up all the time.”

That was then. Now, in an effort to put lipstick on a Grade 3 race contested over a chemically treated dirt track – I’m sorry, but “winterized” is not a word, unless we get to use “summerific” in California – the New York Racing Association has increased the Gotham purse to a chilly half a million, while Churchill Downs Inc. contributes 85 precious points toward qualification for the Kentucky Derby.

Still, for the Gotham to be taken seriously, a horse needs to emerge from its current conditions to at least do something somewhere in the Triple Crown, which has yet to happen. A field of 11 was entered for Saturday’s running, with New York natives Samraat and Uncle Sigh leading the way.

Beginning in 1953, the first seven runnings of the Gotham took place at Jamaica Race Course, which went out of business in 1959 and was replaced by a housing development. That first Gotham was split, which gave Laffango a chance to win the second division because he was never going to beat Native Dancer in the first. Native Dancer went on to win the Preakness, the Belmont and everything else but the Kentucky Derby.

When Eddie Arcaro retired at the end of the 1961 season, he left a lot on the table. One of the best was Jaipur, who made his 1962 debut in the Gotham under Bill Shoemaker and beat Sunrise County by 1 1/2 lengths. Jaipur was not nominated to the Kentucky Derby, but passing the race did not keep him from winning the Withers, the Belmont and the Travers to be voted 3-year-old champ.

Dr. Fager and Damascus met for the first time in the 1967 Gotham Stakes in what turned out to be a harbinger of their two-year rivalry. Damascus, coming off a win in the seven-furlong Bay Shore, was on the engine for Bill Shoemaker and in front of Dr. Fager until deep in the stretch. That’s when Manny Ycaza asked Dr. Fager for just enough to put Damascus away by a half-length. Dr. Fager went on to win six more stakes that year (he was DQ’d from a seventh), while Damascus ended 1967 as Horse of the Year with 11 stakes wins, including the Preakness, the Belmont, the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Secretariat, the reigning Horse of the Year, already had flexed his muscles in 1973, bulling his way to victory in the Bay Shore Stakes, his first start as a 3-year-old. Ron Turcotte was in no mood to let traffic be a factor in the Gotham, so he let Secretariat fly and appeared to have the race in hand with a quarter of a mile to run. Then the stubborn Champagne Charlie made a run that put him alongside Secretariat at the eighth pole, but that was as close as he got. Big Red won by three in stakes-record time.

The 1989 running of the Gotham presented reigning 2-year-old champion Easy Goer with an opportunity to enhance his growing reputation as the best New York-based colt since the days of Secretariat. This he did, in spades, with a 13-length victory under Pat Day’s hand ride in a stakes-record 1:32.40. Easy Goer went on to an unprecedented sweep of the Belmont, the Whitney, the Travers, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Even as the impact of the Gotham waned and other Kentucky Derby preliminaries gained traction, there have been key runnings.

In 1992, the Gotham ended in a dead heat between Lure, a future Hall of Famer, and Devil His Due, who went on to win nearly $4 million. Three years later, the 1-2 finishers in the Gotham were Talkin Man, who came right back to take the Wood Memorial, and Da Hoss, best known for his pair of wins in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Migliore ended up winning three Gothams – with Eternal Prince in 1985, Alysweep in 2003, and Survivalist in 2005.

“It should have been four, but I gave one of them away to Julie,” Migliore said. “In ’96 I was riding both Feather Box and Romano Gucci. I thought Feather Box was bred to go further so I went with him, and she picked up the mount.”

Feather Box ended up finishing third, for which there is no memento. But a quick search through the trophy case here at home – which I am obligated by the fine print of marriage vows to regularly dust – discovered a silver julep cup inscribed to “Herbert Kushner’s Romano Gucci – Jockey Julie Krone.” There’s just enough time to give it a polish before Saturday.