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Gotham Stakes 2024 | Aqueduct Picks [Kentucky Derby]
Bergen (Joe Labozzetta / NYRA)

Gotham Stakes 2024 | Aqueduct Picks [Kentucky Derby]

Aaron previews the 2024 Gotham Stakes (G3) from Aqueduct Racetrack, then gives his top picks from this Kentucky Derby (G1) prep race.

Bergen leads a 4-headed push from trainer Brad Cox, but could another barn pull off an upset? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!

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The press release:

Two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox will have four chances to secure his first Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham score as he sends out Bergen, Just a Touch, Air Cav and Lightline in Saturday’s one-mile test for sophomores at Aqueduct Racetrack.

The Gotham, which awards 50-25-15-10-5 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top-five finishers, is slated as the final race on the lucrative 10-race program at Aqueduct that features an additional three stakes events:

  • The Grade 3, $175,000 Tom Fool Handicap in Race 9
  • The $200,000 Busher, a 50-25-15-10-5 Kentucky Oaks qualifier, in Race 7
  • The $150,000 Stymie in Race 8

First post at Aqueduct on Saturday is 12:50 p.m. Eastern.

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Leading the charge for the Cox cavalry in the 13-horse strong Gotham is Spendthrift Farm, Martin Schwartz, Gandharvi, Big Easy Racing, Rick Kanter, James Bakke, Titletown Racing Stables, Kueber Racing, Golconda Stable, Ali Goodrich and Mark Parkinson’s Bergen, who captured the six-furlong Jimmy Winkfield last out at Aqueduct on January 27.

The Liam’s Map gray aced his stakes debut impressively under returning rider Manny Franco [post 8], who patiently held his charge 1 1/2 lengths off the pace in fourth through the first quarter-mile as El Divino Nino showed the way.

Bergen was given his cue at the three-eighths marker and responded with aplomb to steadily make up ground and assume command at the stretch call. He powered home strongly to cross the wire 5 1/4 lengths in front in a final time of 1:12.63.

Cox said he was pleased to see Bergen handle a less-than-ideal cutback in the Winkfield after finishing second in a one-mile November optional claimer at Churchill Downs.

“I was wanting to stretch out to seven-eighths, one-turn mile but just couldn’t get the right race to go,” said Cox. “I did like the idea after Churchill of bringing him up to New York and having the options of seven-eighths, one-turn mile races for him. We ended up running three-quarters and it worked out, but I do think this is a horse that will be better going a one-turn mile.”

Bergen’s November effort at Churchill, his only previous outing at one mile, saw him bumped at the start before rallying from 5 3/4 lengths off the pace to finish 1 1/4 lengths behind undefeated dual stakes-winner Who Dey.

Bergen graduated on debut in October at Keeneland with a rallying three-quarter-length score when sprinting six furlongs.

Cox added he was satisfied with Bergen’s latest workout, a half-mile breeze in 49.65 seconds Friday over the Belmont Park dirt training track.

“He’s been solid enough in the morning and has been steady since his win in the Winkfield,” said Cox. “I’m excited about giving him a little more ground to run over.”

Qatar Racing and Marc Detampel’s Just a Touch [post 10, Florent Geroux] makes his first start against winners after a dominant graduation on debut on January 27 at Fair Grounds Race Course.

The $300,000 OBS Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training purchase captured the six-furlong sprint in prominent fashion under Florent Geroux and briefly stalked the pace before taking a head advantage at the half-mile call and extended his lead throughout the latter stages.

He crossed the wire a 4 1/4-length winner ahead of Gun Party, a well-regarded colt for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen that was purchased for $1.7 million as a yearling.

“He’s very athletic,” Cox said of Just a Touch. “He’s a good-sized colt and done everything right in the mornings and he showed up first time out. It’s going to be a big ask shipping him up there, but I like the idea of stretching him out to the one-turn mile. I’m hopeful he can handle that and we’ll see how it goes.”

Just a Touch has since worked three times at Fair Grounds, most recently covering five furlongs in 1:00.60 Saturday and the same distance in 1:00 flat eight days earlier.

“I was in Saudi, but the work was executed very well,” said Cox, who sent out Saudi Crown to a third-place effort in Saturday’s Group 1 Saudi Cup. “We’ve done plenty with him since he broke his maiden and fitness wise we’ve got him as tight as we can get him. Hopefully that will be enough to show up with a big effort.”

The Justify bay is out of the graded stakes-winning Tapit mare Touching Beauty, who has also produced stakes-placed Corps of Discovery. Touching Beauty is a full-sister to graded stakes-placed Tritap and stakes-winner Noisy Feet.

Calumet Farm’s Air Cav [post 6, Eric Cancel] will look to rebound from a third-place effort behind Bergen in the Jimmy Winkfield last out. The Mitole chestnut was defeated 12 lengths after giving chase through the early stages and improving to third position at the stretch call, where he stayed through the lane to land his first stakes placing.

Air Cav graduated on debut by a neck over next-out winner Cats by Five in a 5 1/2-furlong sprint in August at Horseshoe Indianapolis. He followed with a distant fifth-place finish in the Grade 1 Champagne when stretched out to one mile in October at Belmont at the Big A.

“He’s been steady enough in the morning, but he needs to step up and prove that he belongs,” said Cox. “He’s another one that’s pointed for an allowance race here or there that didn’t go when he was ready. This is a tough spot for him, but if he steps up and gets a good trip he could be right there. We’re hoping he can take a big step forward.”

Air Cav worked a half-mile in 48.85 seconds Friday at Belmont in company with Lightline [post 11, Ramon Vazquez], who rounds out the contingent for Cox.

The City of Light Bay, owned by Albaugh Family Stables, earned graded black type last out with a third-place effort in the nine-furlong Grade 3 Withers on February 3 over a muddy sealed Aqueduct main track. He was jostled at the start and tracked close to the pace in fifth through the first half-mile in 49.49 seconds before dropping back leaving the backstretch and making a four-wide bid in the turn.

He showed a good turn of foot under Franco but could not reel in the top pair of Uncle Heavy and El Grande O, settling for show honors as he collared Deposition by a half-length.

Cox said he is hopeful there will be a swifter pace in front of Lightline on Saturday with the cutback in distance.

“I would like to think it gives him an opportunity if the race is to collapse to pick up pieces or run them all down,” said Cox. “He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of early speed, but he’s steady enough and he might get the right set up.”

Lightline vies for his first win since a 13 3/4-length romp on debut in a one-mile maiden in September at Horseshoe Indianapolis. The $600,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase is out of the multiple graded stakes-winning Maria’s Mon mare Upperline, who also produced graded stakes-placed Reigning Spirit.

Barry Schwartz’s New York homebred El Grande O cuts back to one mile after a narrow runner-up effort to Uncle Heavy when defeated a nose after a prominent trip in the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct on February 3.

Trained by Linda Rice, the talented son of Take Charge Indy is set to make his 11th career outing, making him the most seasoned contender in the field.

“He’s not a real big horse. He’s a medium-sized horse and he has a great mind,” said Rice. “He handles training and racing exceptionally well. We’re hoping his experience and ability will stand up in a crowd in the Gotham.”

El Grande O seeks his first open company victory after state-bred stakes scores in the 7-furlong Bertram F. Bongard in September and the 1-mile Sleepy Hollow in October, both over sealed Aqueduct surfaces. He faced his farthest test to date in the Withers, where he also made his first start around two turns.

“He’s pretty versatile,” Rice said. “We were uncertain of the mile and an eighth, but we thought it was worth a try and I think he ran great.

“Every one of us has Derby dreams. When they will come to fruition, who knows,” Rice added, with a laugh. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

Kendrick Carmouche retains the mount from post 7.

LC Racing, Cash is King and Wellesley Stable’s Maximus Meridius [post 2, Mychel Sanchez] makes his stakes debut off a strong open-company optional claiming score sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs on January 30 at Parx Racing for trainer Butch Reid, Jr.

The son of the Reid, Jr.-trained Maximus Mischief has made each of his three outings at Parx and was an eye-catching 10 1/2-length winner on debut in a six-furlong maiden tilt in November.

He followed with a prominent third-place finish in a 6 1/2-furlong optional claimer on December 26 where he finished 3 1/2 lengths back of the victorious Frankie’s Empire, who exited that effort to win the Swale at Gulfstream Park.

Last out, Maximus Meridius sported blinkers for the first time in the afternoon and vied for early command through an opening quarter-mile in 22.33 seconds over muddy and sealed footing. He assumed command after a half-mile in 46.57 and clocked three-quarters in 1:13.19 en route to a strong 3 1/2-length score in a final time of 1:20.28.

“We added blinkers in his third start. He was having focus problems,” said Reid, Jr. “He wasn’t paying attention and was waiting for horses to come up on the outside. That second start turned out to be an impressive race given that the winner came back to win the Swale down at Gulfstream Park. It was a legit race for an allowance race at Parx.”

Reid, Jr. said he expects Maximus Meridius, who worked a sharp half-mile in 47.68 on Saturday at Parx, to relish added ground as his father did when capturing the nine-furlong Grade 2 Remsen in 2018.

“His father did it [stretch out] without a problem and the kid who gets on him in the morning thinks he’s waiting to go longer,” said Reid, Jr. “He galloped out good in the breeze and we’re looking forward to the mile stretch out.”

Hall Thoroughbreds, Pearl Racing and West Point Thoroughbreds’ graded stakes-placed Slider [post 12, Jose Lezcano] ships outside of California for the first time on the heels of a valiant third-place finish in the Grade 2 San Vicente on January 6 at Santa Anita Park.

Trained by John Sadler, the Jimmy Creed chestnut has made each of his five starts at sprint distances, graduating at second asking in a 5 1/2-furlong dirt sprint in September at Del Mar.

He followed with a 1 1/4-length victory in the five-furlong Speakeasy over the Santa Anita green and closed out his 2-year-old campaign with a ninth-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint.

Slider kicked off his sophomore campaign with a return to dirt in the seven-furlong San Vicente where he broke a step slow and set the pace through the first half-mile in 45.27 with a slight advantage over Pilot Commander before relinquishing the lead at the stretch call.

He kept on gamely down the lane as the victorious Muth swept past him and a battling Pilot Commander and was edged out of place honors by a head to the latter.

“It was his first run off a little freshening after the Breeders’ Cup and I thought it was a good first effort,” Sadler said. “It’s a long year, so it’s a good ‘first-start-back’ race. He got away a little slow and had to work a little hard. Hopefully, we get a good break in New York.”

Sadler said he is hopeful Slider can continue to show his usual early speed as he makes his first effort beyond sprint distances.

“We’ll find out. He won a little stake on the turf at our fall meet and then it made sense – since we didn’t see him as a big distance horse – to keep him short,” said Sadler. “The Breeders’ Cup race was on the grass and we thought he’d run in there. He ran OK – it didn’t go his way. So, we decided going into this year that he’s versatile and he’ll have a chance on both surfaces this year. I think he can stretch and can make at least a nice middle-distance horse.”

Completing the competitive Aqueduct field are:

  • Maiden winner Deterministic [post 3, Joel Rosario] for conditioner Christophe Clement
  • His Aqueduct maiden-winning stablemate Capital Idea [post 13, Trevor McCarthy]
  • Stakes-placed Khanate [post 1, Jose Gomez], who races with blinkers off for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher
  • His Aqueduct maiden-winning stablemate Eliminate [post 9, Dylan Davis]
  • Maiden winner Facenda [post 4, Abel Cedillo] for trainer Doug O’Neill
  • Maiden winner Deposition [post 5, Dexter Haddock] for trainer Uriah St. Lewis