The road to the Kentucky Derby will take a few more twists and turns this Saturday, with the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) marking a rematch between Withers Stakes (gr. III) 1-2 finishers Samraat and Uncle Sigh, and Gulfstream’s Swale Stakes (gr. II) featuring the return of Champagne Stakes (gr. I) winner Havana. But could the box-office stars be overshadowed by the supporting cast? To answer that question, let’s take a quick look at the two races…
In this day and age, with match races nearly as extinct as dinosaurs, it was exciting to watch the show put on by Samraat and Uncle Sigh in the February 1st Withers Stakes at Aqueduct. No one who saw the race will ever forget the remarkable battle between the two New York-bred colts, who left their rivals behind at the start and were never separated by more than a length from start to finish. Samraat emerged on top by a length that day, and—on paper—should have the edge over Uncle Sigh again on Saturday. However, while Uncle Sigh has been pointing toward the Gotham ever since his defeat in the Withers, Samraat's appearance in this race came as a bit of a surprise. Immediately after the Withers, trainer Richard Violette, Jr. made plans for Samraat to skip the Gotham and target the Wood Memorial (gr. I) in April. But after seeing how well the colt has trained during the last few weeks, a last-minute decision was made to go ahead and run Samraat in the Gotham. While it's good to know that Samraat is training well, I have a personal handicapping rule-of-thumb to be wary of horses that get entered in races they hadn’t originally targeted, as such plans seem to disappoint more often than not. And since Samraat's edge over Uncle Sigh appears to be tenuous, I have to side with Uncle Sigh in the rematch.
But even though I like Uncle Sigh to defeat Samraat, I actually prefer Harpoon to beat them both. The Todd Pletcher-trainee underwent a rather odd journey in the February 1st Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay Downs. After a very alert start, he was content to settle in fourth place while racing toward the inside, a position he retained until the far turn, where he suddenly dropped back several lengths and appeared to be beaten. But upon being guided to the far outside at the top of the stretch, Harpoon came back to life, roaring past horses like he was going to win by a mile. Unfortunately, it was at that inopportune moment that he drifted in, and rival Matador drifted out, resulting in some bumping that caused Harpoon to lose his momentum. He regained it in time to make the finish a close one, but fell a nose short of catching his stablemate, Vinceremos. From a speed figure perspective, the Sam F. Davis was not a fast race, and it must be noted that Harpoon was rallying into slow final fractions. But I think Harpoon has a lot of upside, and with Samraat, Uncle Sigh, and Miracle Wood Stakes winner Extrasexyhippzster all likely to battle for the early lead, I think Harpoon will take advantage and pass them all in the homestretch.
There’s little doubt that Havana deserves to be the favorite in the Swale, thanks to his high-profile connections and strong race record. The speedy son of Dunkirk did miss some training time this winter, but he has come back quickly with five workouts since February 1st. He may not be one-hundred percent fit in his first start of the year, and he may face early pressure while breaking from the rail, but his talent alone should be enough to get him a top-three finish. The seven-furlong distance should also play in his favor.
But while most of the attention may be focused on Havana, I believe that No Nay Never will give him a real run for the money. The Wesley Ward-trainee went unbeaten in three starts as a two-year-old, beginning with an impressive maiden win sprinting 4-1/2 furlongs at Keeneland. He then embarked on a journey to Europe and won the group II Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot and the group I Darley Prix Morny at Deauville, defeating future group I winners Vorda and Rizeena in the latter. The Swale will mark his debut on dirt, and his pedigree is slanted toward success on the turf—both legitimate concerns—but No Nay Never seems to be training exceptionally well on the dirt at Gulfstream, having breezed five furlongs in :58.94 on February 15th. He has also drawn gate three, which will give his jockey the advantage of following Havana and adapting to whatever pace scenario presents itself.
Who do you like?