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OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Aiming to establish themselves on the New York path to the Triple Crown, a competitive field of 3-year-olds are set to do battle in Saturday’s Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham, the first Kentucky Derby Championship Series qualifying event of the season at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The lightly raced Shagaf has shipped up from 2015 NYRA leading trainer Chad Brown’s winter headquarters in Florida for his much-anticipated stakes debut in the Gotham, what will be the Bernardini colt’s third career race.
In his debut last November, Shagaf, owned and bred by Shadwell Stable, who also campaigns early Derby favorite Moyhaymen, drew away after racing five-wide in the stretch to impressively win by six lengths at the Big A and followed up with a two-length score against winners in an optional-claimer on January 29 at Gulfstream Park.
Expected to vie for favoritism with Grade 3 Withers hero Sunny Ridge, Shagaf will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr. from post 2, set as the tepid morning line favorite at 3-1.
“He flew up yesterday and he has been adjusting well since he’s arrived,” Brown said. “He has good positional speed and I’m sure Irad will place him where he needs to be during the race.”
Dennis Drazin’s homebred Sunny Ridge will be looking for his second straight win over the inner track following his three-quarter-length Withers victory over Vorticity, although, despite having already amassed 18 qualifying points towards the Derby, the connections aren’t exactly dreaming of roses in May.
“The game plan right now is skip the Derby, run in the Preakness and Belmont, give him a break, and then run in the Haskell,” said Drazin, a native of New Jersey, further noting, “Everyone wants to know what’s next, but first he’s got to run on Saturday.”
With six races under his belt, the Jason Servis-trained Sunny Ridge has posted three wins and a pair of stakes placings, finishing second by 4 ½ lengths in the Grade 1 Champagne last fall at Belmont and coming up a neck behind Exaggerator in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot in November.
“I think he’ll get 1 ¼ miles, 1 ½ miles,” Drazin said of the New Jersey-bred son of Holy Bull. “He’s a gelding, and hopefully he’ll have a long career. He could be a horse who runs until he’s eight or nine, so you want to make sure you don’t press him. Jason feels the horse will tell us what he’s capable of.”
Sunny Ridge’s Withers jockey, Manny Franco, has the return call in the Gotham. Installed as the second choice on the morning line at 7-2, the pair will break from post 7.
The Gotham, contested at 1 1/16 miles and worth 85 Derby qualifying points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to the top four finishers, has also drawn West Coast import Laoban for McCormick Racing LLC and Southern Equine Stable.
The Grade 3-placed Laoban, meaning “boss” in Mandarin Chinese, arrived from California last week, a move designed to allow the first-time shipper ample time to adjust to the cooler New York climate and get a feel of the inner track, according to trainer Eric Guillot.
Donning blinkers in his second start, the Uncle Mo colt posted an encouraging, second-place showing in a December maiden special weight at Santa Anita, prompting his connections to try the maiden against stakes company in the Grade 3 Sham on January 9, where he overcame a trouble-wrought trip to finish third by 2 ¾ lengths.
“He was slammed out of the gate, the saddle slipped up on his withers, he ran six wide in the first turn and then almost clipped heels,” Guillot said of the race.
Guillot hopes for a cleaner trip this time for Laoban, to be ridden by Aaron Gryder at morning line odds of 15-1, a scenario that could be a little more challenging after having drawn the less-than-ideal inside post.
“It changes the thought process,” Guillot said of strategizing the position. “You don’t want to use your horse in a 1 1/16-mile race but you don’t want to get buried [on the rail] either.”
“We might have to try to pull a Moreno,” he added, referring to his front-running, and recently retired, stable star.
Top trainer Todd Pletcher has entered a couple of stakes newcomers from his Florida training base in Rally Cry and Mo Power. Rally Cry has had success in a pair of Gulfstream Park’s one-turn mile contests, including a three-length maiden win on December 26.
“We are looking forward to stretching him out around two turns,” Pletcher said of Rally Cry. “He has run well in all three starts. He has yet to run as impressively as he trains in the morning, and we are hoping that two turns will showcase his talent.
“He’s been very impressive in his training; he trains in a manner consistent with graded stakes-caliber horses. We’re looking forward to seeing where he stands in the 3-year-old picture,” he continued, adding that Mo Power was also eligible for an A-other-than for 3-year-olds in the condition book on Sunday.
At 5-1 on the morning line, Rally Cry will leave from the outside post with Junior Alvarado in the irons, while maiden winner Mo Power, set at 6-1, is slated to be ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez from post 5.
Conquest Big E, meanwhile, will be looking to improve off his recent fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Holy Bull on January 30 at Gulfstream, where he was bumped out of the gate and traveled wide to finish nine lengths behind Mohaymen.
“I think, truthfully, we were a little disappointed with his last race,” said Norm Casse, assistant trainer to his father Mark. “He did have a few excuses, and our thinking was that he deserved another shot at a Triple Crown prep. He’s been training well. He’s always shown us a lot in the mornings, and a little bit in the afternoons. He’s super athletic and he works like a stakes horse.”
A $700,000 yearling purchase, the gray son of Tapit has a pair of wins to his credit, winning his second start against maidens by 2 ¼ lengths at Keeneland last fall and ending his 2-year-old season on a high note with an optional claiming victory. Conquest Big E’s only off-the-board finish came in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on October 31.
“He’s super talented, but I don’t know if mentally he’s put it all together yet,” Casse said. “When it does click, he’s going to be a good racehorse. It’s a little bit frustrating but we haven’t given up on him yet.”
Conquest Big E, 6-1 on the morning line, will be ridden by Jose Ortiz from post 6.
Rounding out the field for the Gotham are Treadway Racing Stable’s impressive maiden winner Adventist, most recently a green-running third in the Withers and making his third lifetime start for Leah Gyarmati, and Vincent Scuderi’s New York-bred Vincento, who has two wins from four starts against state-breds and will take on open company for the first time for Aqueduct leading trainer Rudy Rodriguez.
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