03/06/2016 12:08PM

Road to the Derby: Gotham Stakes

Michael Amoruso
The unbeaten Shagaf earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 87 for his Gotham victory.

Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Aqueduct, March 5, 2016

 (50 Derby qualifying points for a win, 20 for second, 10 for third, 5 for fourth)

 Winner: Shagaf, by Bernardini

 Trainer: Chad Brown

 Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.

 Owner: Shadwell Stable

 Beyer Speed Figure: 87

 SHAGAF remained unbeaten in three starts with this victory, his first in a stakes and his first around two turns. He is the understudy for owner Shadwell Stable to Mohaymen, currently the ante-post favorite for the May 7 Kentucky Derby on the Derby Watch future line set by colleague Mike Watchmaker.

 It’s hard to properly evaluate this race, because the track was so absurdly biased towards speed. The entire card produced one front-running winner after another, except for this race, so for Shagaf to rally and prevail is certainly a major point in his favor. But the Beyer Speed Figure he earned is moderate, and with the top four in this race all finishing within three lengths of one another, it wasn’t visually attractive, either.

 This is the second major Derby prep in the past two weeks where the track’s bias played a major role, following the Risen Star at Fair Grounds.

 Shagaf broke best of all and led for the initial strides out of the gate before conceding the lead to the maiden LAOBAN, who was ridden aggressively from his inside stall to move up and take the lead. Shagaf was shuffled back a bit down the backstretch and dropped back to fourth, but continued to save ground.  He moved inside the faltering RALLY CRY midway on the far turn to get up to third, was angled out at the top of the stretch to go after Laoban and SUNNY RIDGE, and closed with workmanlike efficiency to pass Sunny Ridge and then catch Laoban in the shadow of the wire.

 Laoban, who finished second, was exiting a low-rated Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. In this race, he bobbled slightly leaving the gate, but jockey Aaron Gryder, obviously cognizant of the track bias, shrewdly hustled Laoban to the front to secure the lead and the rail. He had a clear lead during the run up the backstretch, kicked away when Rally Cry got to his flank with a half-mile remaining, turned back a bid from Sunny Ridge entering the lane, was a bit late to change leads in upper stretch, and stubbornly held on to the lead until being passed in the final yards by Shagaf.

 ADVENTIST, who was third, saved ground into the first turn while following Shagaf, was angled outside Shagaf down the backstretch and got a bit rank while racing in traffic, was angled farther out on the far turn to try and rally, was about a length behind Shagaf while just to the outside of Shagaf entering the lane, and stayed in that spot most of the stretch but could not keep up with Shagaf in the final sixteenth. The track profile did not favor his style, and, like Shagaf, this was only his third start.

 Sunny Ridge, who was fourth, settled into fourth while racing three paths wide on the first turn, advanced outside Rally Cry down the backstretch, was three paths wide on the far turn while chasing Laoban, tried mightily to get past Laoban for much of the stretch but tired from those efforts and surrendered both second and third in the closing yards while giving six to seven pounds to his rivals. The track profile was not in his favor, either, but it seems his connection’s assessment of his Derby ability has been spot-on, a subject covered when he won the Withers.

 CONQUEST BIG E, who was fifth, was last while three paths wide into the first turn, never got over and was forced to race four paths wide into the far turn, dived inside of Shagaf and Adventist in upper stretch but made no impact. Being far back and wide was not the place to be, so that excuse could be made for him, but, to date, this is a colt who has promised a lot more than he has delivered.

 Speaking of horses who train like monsters but don’t perform like that in the afternoon, there’s Rally Cry, who finished sixth. I saw his final work at Palm Meadows for this race and it was sensational, with a giant gallop-out. Trainer Todd Pletcher said he had been training like that for weeks, and was hopeful that kind of talent would finally be on display in the afternoon, too. But he also disappointed. He bobbled his first stride out of the gate, was caught four paths wide into the first turn, but had enough speed to get over and sit second, just behind Laoban while outside Shagaf. He moved up to be on Laoban’s flank nearing the far turn, but came under a ride with three furlongs to go and had nothing to offer.

VINCENTO, who finished last of seven, broke well but was rated toward the back of the pack while saving ground into the first turn. He trailed down the backstretch, began to lose contact with his rivals nearing the far turn, never rallied, and raced on his incorrect lead in the homestretch.