Saturday's Gotham is the first chance for 3-year-olds on the Derby trail to earn graded stakes money in New York. For that reason, we usually get our first real look at promising horses that are based in the Northeast and a new Triple Crown prospect usually emerges.
This year's race came up a strong. A field of nine was entered and at least four of them - Haynesfield, Mr. Fantasy, Imperial Council and I Want Revenge - are high on the watch lists of many. Throw in Pletcher's pair of good-looking Lion Heart colts (Naos and Masala) and you have what should be a very competitive race. It has early speed (Haynesfield and Mr. Fantasy), a few that like the lay just off the pace (Masala, Imperial Council and Russell Road) and a couple that might be hoping to close off a hot pace (Naos and I Want Revenge).
For me, it's the one prep race I have been looking forward to the most so far this year. Let's take a look at the entries and don't forget, to chat about this race and Big ‘Cap day more in-depth, join me here for the premier of the "live" blog on Saturday at noon. Should be fun!
1. Naos: Impressive allowance winner last out at Philly Park in his first try stretching out. I didn't get a chance to see the race but looks like he made a huge move on the turn. It's notable that he also broke from the inside post in that victory. Not sure what happened in the Jimmy Winkfield, but he proved he liked the inner track when breaking his maiden last year. Interesting horse and should be a price. He's worth considering for the upset and in exotics.
2. Russell Road: Well, he's won six in a row - five of them at Charles Town - but the West Virginia-bred is probably overmatched here. Also stretches out for the first time. Would be a shocker. Can't see it.
3. Masala: Pletcher's other colt broke his maiden on the inner track in November when it was muddy. There is a chance of rain in NY on Saturday, so a wet track could help him. Was beaten two lengths by Take the Points in a one-mile allowance at Gulfstream in January after breaking poorly. Take the Points came back to take second in the Sham last weekend, which bodes well for him. I guess you have to respect. I would watch the tote board and see which of Pletcher's pair takes more money. Could be telling.
4. Axel Foley: California shipper was disappointing when losing the El Camino by 11. Hasn't put it all together yet and I don't see it happening here. McLaughlin is trying dirt in hopes that he'll like it better, but I am skeptical. Has had a couple of decent works recently, including his first at Belmont on Feb. 27. Doubtful.
5. Mr. Fantasy: If you've followed this blog at all you know that this is my early Derby horse. His first two starts were dominant wins with big speed numbers and now he steps into open company for the first time. New York-breds who struggle against open company first out are a dime-a-dozen, so that is the big question he must answer here. But I think this colt is different. He moves with such ease and is push-button. I expect him to be on or near the lead with Haynesfield and be in position to win at the top of the lane. Whether he is good enough or not, we'll find out. He has two wins over the track, one at the distance, and early speed on the inner track usually does well. The pick.
6. Haynesfield: Hard to knock anything he's done so far. Likes the track, has a convincing win at the distance and comes from a winning barn. But like Mr. Fantasy, he faces top-level company for the first time, so it's hard to say what will happen. It's notable that his last two works were not very good, but then again, he hasn't worked sharply very often. Also, regular rider Ramon Dominguez is in California for the Santa Anita Handicap. Carries an extra four pounds too. Something tells me Haynesfield takes a step back here. If I'm wrong and he wins, he has to be considered a top-7 Derby horse.
7. Imperial Council: A little surprised he was installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite being that he tries two turns for the first time and has never run over the inner track. But his talent seems to be there and this could be a breakout race. Has a bullet work at Belmont this week and should get a good, stalking trip behind the leaders. Another notable jockey change is that Prado is also in California to ride Monba in the Santa Anita Handicap and Rajiv Maragh picks up the mount. Hmm. He very well could do what Quality Road did last weekend and vault himself into the Derby mix. Or, as Shug McGaughey has hinted, he might be better set up for the Wood. Tough call.
8. I Want Revenge: Like Axel Foley, a California shipper with graded stakes experience. Only difference is, this one has been very competitive. Lost two close ones to Pioneerof the Nile, who is at the top of nearly everyone's West Coast watch list. We know he can handle the class, but will he like the surface? Another tough call. Joe Talamo flies in for the ride, so they are serious about winning. Been training well since the Robert Lewis and seems to be in good form. I wouldn't leave out of exotics.
9. Giant Ryan: Goes long for the first time and is in way over his head. No thanks.
The Pick: Is Mr. Fantasy as good as I think he is? We'll find out. I already have him bet pretty good in the Derby futures (at 75-1), so no need to go crazy here. I'll just play a straight $50 win ticket and wheel him in exactas with Naos, Imperial Council and I Want Revenge.
In the Santa Anita Handicap I'll go with Zambezi Sun, who has faced the world's best in Europe, cuts back in distance and should be better in his second off a layoff. This is his first start off turf, but has two good works over the Pro-Ride. He'll be coupled with Champs Elysees for Bobby Frankel. I'll use Court Vision and Blue Exit in my exacta box.
Finally, in my upset pick of the week, I'll try Will O Way to shock Stardom Bound in the Oaks. Might as well take a shot, right? Good luck everyone and looking forward to seeing you on the live blog. Who do you like?