03/05/2016 7:56PM

Shagaf rallies to capture Gotham Stakes

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Michael Amoruso
Shagaf's Grade 3 Gotham Stakes victory provided not only 50 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby, but experience winning off of the pace.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Shagaf overcame a speed-biased Aqueduct inner track to pass his stakes and two-turn debut Saturday, running down the pace-setting Laoban in the deep stretch to win the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths.

The victory kept Shagaf unbeaten in three starts and earned him 50 qualifying points toward the Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs. The Gotham, however, has not been a harbinger of Derby success. Only Secretariat (1973) has won both the Gotham and the Derby. In the last 31 years, 14 Gotham winners have run in the Derby with only Easy Goer (2nd) finishing in the money.

That he handled two turns and rallied from fourth on a speed-favoring track were the positives for Shagaf, a gorgeous son of Bernardini trained by Chad Brown. That he seemed to be inhibited by kickback and his final time of 1:45.90 - the slowest of 11 Gothams run at 1 1/16 miles - were the negatives.

"I’m not worried about [the time] because the track the last two days has been weird,” said Irad Ortiz Jr., Shagaf’s jockey. “He has some talent."

Ortiz rode Shagaf about an hour after being unseated past the finish line by Cali Star, his mount in the $150,000 Heavenly Prize Stakes. Ortiz was removed from the track on a stretcher, missed his mount in race 8, but said he was fine when he walked out Aqueduct’s First Aid office after being evaluated by track medical staff.

Sensing the speed-biased nature of the track, Ortiz suggested to Brown to perhaps put Shagaf on the lead. Ortiz said Brown didn’t want to do that, instead opting to educate the horse, getting him behind horses and taking some dirt.

"He said 'Let's teach him, let’s educate him, if we don’t win, we don’t win,'"Ortiz said. "Thank God it worked out good because I did everything he told me and he still won the race."

Shagaf, breaking from post 2, broke sharp and was in front crossing the finish line the first time. But the maiden Laoban, after breaking toward the inside, was sent to the front by Aaron Gryder, per instructions from trainer Eric Guillot.

Shagaf settled into second position, outside of Rally Cry, about two lengths behind Laoban, who ran an opening quarter in 23.33 seconds. Shagaf got a little bit closer to Laoban, but then appeared to come off the bridle as he was getting dirt kicked back at him. Shagaf dropped back to fourth midway down the backside.

"He lost a little bit when he got some kick back, he didn’t really love that, but we have to educate him," Ortiz said.

Sunny Ridge, who was outside of Shagaf and Rally Cry, made a move into second approaching the five-sixteenths pole while Shagaf was third as Rally Cry dropped out of it.

Laoban, who never left the rail, kept going on the lead and was still a half-length in front of Sunny Ridge in midstretch. Meanwhile, Ortiz had swung Shagaf outside into the clear turning for home. With a crack of Ortiz’s right-handed whip and several cracks of his left, Shagaf was able to gradually wear down Laboan.

Laoban held second by three-quarters of a length over Adventist, who was a length in front of Sunny Ridge. Conquest Big E, Rally Cry and Vincento completed the order of finish.

"Initially, I’m very impressed," Brown said. "To my knowledge he’s the only horse that did overcome the bias. In the days to come, we’ll all be able to evaluate it a little deeper, look at the whole race card and see how exactly the track was playing. For right now I’m thrilled. He showed us everything we thought he was."

Shagaf is owned by Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Stable, which also owns undefeated Mohaymen. With Mohaymen staying in Florida to run in the Florida Derby, Shagaf will stay in New York and point to the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial on April 9.

"Hopefully, on May 7 we’ll let them play together and see what happens," said Rich Nichols, racing manager for Shadwell.

Guillot said he was pleased with the effort put in by Laoban, who earned 20 points - and has 22 overall - toward the Derby. Guillot said he may take Laoban to Keeneland for the Blue Grass Stakes, but could also stay in New York for the Wood.

Sunny Ridge, the Withers winner, was outfinished by Adventist, who was third for the second straight stakes race. Sunny Ridge’s connections had previously said the Kentucky Derby was not on their radar screen, and Saturday’s performance likely did little to change their minds.