Will Sunny Ridge Be Overshadowed in the Gotham?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

On Saturday, the third of Aqueduct's four Kentucky Derby prep races of 2016 will be held, that being the $400,000 Gotham Stakes (gr. III). The 8.5-furlong race has drawn an exceptional field of eight evenly-matched rivals-let's take a look at the entries!

#HorseJockeyTrainerLast race
1LaobanAaron GryderEric Guillot3rd Sham Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
2ShagafIrad Ortiz, Jr.Chad Brown1st Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
3AdventistKendrick CarmoucheLeah Gyarmati3rd Withers Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
4VincentoA. ArroyoRudy Rodriguez4th Gander Stakes (VIDEO)
5Mo PowerJohn VelazquezTodd Pletcher1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
6Conquest Big EJose OrtizMark Casse4th Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
7Sunny RidgeManuel FrancoJason Servis1st Withers Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
8Rally CryJunior AlvaradoTodd Pletcher3rd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)

Any analysis of this race must start with Sunny Ridge, who is by far the most accomplished horse in the field. As a two-year-old, he won the Sapling Stakes and finished second in both the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III), and he opened this year with a hard-fought victory in the Withers Stakes (gr. III) here at Aqueduct. He's a very talented horse, and it won't be a surprise if he wins, but I think he could be vulnerable this Saturday. For one, he could not have gotten a better trip in the Withers Stakes, pressing a slow pace while some of his key rivals had troubled trips, and for another, he will have to carry 123 pounds in the Gotham, seven more than his seven rivals. This might not prove to be an issue-the last four Gotham winners have all carried 123 pounds to victory-but it is still a pretty large weight concession, especially considering the talent of his rivals.

For these reasons, I'll take a shot against Sunny Ridge with Shagaf. An unbeaten son of Bernardini, Shagaf opened his career with a visually impressive six-length romp in a one-mile maiden special weight at Aqueduct, then ran in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream two months later and won by two lengths. It wasn't a huge margin of victory, but jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. looked back over his shoulder three times on the far turn-a signal that Shagaf was still full of run and unchallenged at that point-and once Shagaf had taken a clear lead, I think he lost focus and slowed down a bit, for he seemed to be just loping along despite the efforts of Ortiz to keep him going. After the race, Ortiz was quoted as saying that Shagaf did lose focus and slowed down, but after crossing the wire and hearing another rival approaching behind him, Shagaf tried to accept the challenge and speed back up.

All this is basically a long way of saying that I think Shagaf had a lot left at the end of his last race, and if Ortiz can delay Shagaf's challenge a bit longer, I think Shagaf will stay more focused on Saturday and keep his unbeaten record intact with a win in the Gotham.

I also greatly respect the chances of Adventist, who broke his maiden by 11 ¼ lengths sprinting six furlongs at Aqueduct in December. In the Withers Stakes, which marked his first start around two turns, Adventist got off to a poor start and got a rather poor trip as a result, racing wide on both turns while chasing a slow pace and getting bumped in the homestretch before rallying well to finish third, beaten 1 ¾ lengths by Sunny Ridge. Under the circumstances, I thought Adventist's performance was exceptional, and I think he can take another big step forward on Saturday to be a major contender for victory at a decent price.

Another major contender is Conquest Big E, who showed great form as a two-year-old, breaking his maiden impressively and finishing less than five lengths back in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) before winning a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs by two lengths. In the January 30th Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park, Conquest Big E was expected to be among the pacesetters, but wound up racing several lengths back through very slow early fractions. From there, he failed to rally and was beaten nine lengths, but he emerged from the race with a couple of legitimate excuses-according to trainer Mark Casse, Conquest Big E failed to handle the warm weather in Florida and was overheated after the Holy Bull, and he also emerged from the race with a slight illness. For these reasons, I think Conquest Big E's poor showing can be forgiven, and if he rebounds to his best form in the Gotham, he should have every chance to finish in the top three.

For the bottom of the trifecta and superfecta, Laoban and Rally Cry could be contenders. The former had a troubled trip in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) when his saddle slipped during the race, but he still ran well to finish third, albeit while not facing the toughest competition. He's shown speed in the past, and after drawing post one, he could be the pacesetter in the Gotham.

As for Rally Cry, he finished third to Shagaf in the latter's allowance win at Gulfstream Park but had a very troubled trip, having to check hard when an opening closed on the turn. He showed a lot of determination to restart his rally and finish third, but I don't think he necessarily would have challenged Shagaf even with a clean trip. My gut feeling is that he might be an underlay due to his troubled trip, but he definitely warrants respect as a candidate to hit the board.

Lastly, if you want to play a really big longshot, Vincento warrants a close look. Although his last run yielded a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Gander Stakes at Aqueduct, that race came just six days after winning a one-mile maiden special weight at Aqueduct by 3 1/2 lengths with a 90 Beyer speed figure, the highest earned by any horse in the Gotham. If you forgive his performance in the Gander, Vincento's form looks quite respectable, and at 20-1 or more, he's worth including.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Gotham Stakes?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website http://www.theturfboard.com/.

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