There are two things we are beginning to know with certainty about the Gotham Stakes, the major prep for the Wood Memorial Stakes, which takes place on Saturday, March 5 at 4:50 p.m. ET at Aqueduct Park in New York. The first is that the weather is unpredictable and often lousy. Racing at its best is a warm-weather sport. Aqueduct in the summer is an armpit of a place, but the late winter certainly doesn't help it. The second is that the race ultimately isn't likely to be as important in the road to the Derby as it probably should be. Last year only El Kabeir came out of this race to any fanfare, and he ultimately didn't amount to anything. Aside from 2009 when I Want Revenge won the Gotham and was the Kentucky Derby favorite until he was scratched the morning of the race, this race - and really the Wood Memorial, too - has struggled to produce the highest level of Kentucky Derby contenders.
It only takes one, though, to turn things around. After all, this race has produced horses like Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and Classic winners like Red Bullet and Easy Goer. So, is there a horse here among the eight entrants that could save the reputation of this race? Here's a look:
Shagaf, Irad Ortiz Jr., 3/1: This horse is a tough one to judge. I love his breeding - sired by the great Preakness winner Bernardini out of an Unbridled's Song mare, so talent runs deep. He has only run twice, though, and he is making his stakes debut. His debut in November was very impressive. The second start, though, was less impressive - he won solidly, but it was a very slow race that didn't really elevate the horse. He had a very smooth trip that day, so it's a concern he didn't run faster. His connections are excellent, though, and both jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. and trainer Chad Brown are very reliable in New York. He's the horse to beat in this one, but it's one of those situations in which I wouldn't be surprised at all if he did get beat. We just don't know enough.
Sunny Ridge, Manny Franco, 7/2: I'll admit - a big part of me is cheering against this horse. His connections have said that even if he wins here and stays strong in the coming weeks and months he would likely skip the Derby and aim for the Preakness instead. That would likely change with a big win here, but even considering it turns me off. There are things to like, though. He is the only stakes winner in the field, having already won the Withers on this same Aqueduct track. That win carries a heavy penalty here, though - he will carry 123 pounds while all the other horses will carry just 116. That's a big burden to overcome. You'll want to pay attention to what the program says here. The trainer is J. Servis, but that is journeyman Jason, and not his more accomplished younger brother John who trained Smarty Jones to Derby and Preakness wins.
Adventist, Kendrick Carmouche, 4/1: He looked very good winning his maiden in late December, so he took a big step up into a stakes race next time out. He ran like a lunatic, never showing any control or poise. He would need to improve and have gained a lot of seasoning to contend here. I am not going to bet that he has - especially not at this crazy price.
Rally Cry, Junior Alvarado, 5/1: This is the first of two Todd Pletcher entrants in this one. He was third behind Shagaf last time out, but that race is tough to judge. On one hand, he had a horrible early trip filled with interference and still came back to run fairly well. On the other hand, though, that race was very slow, and the slower a race is the less crippling a troubled start should be. He has only one win in three winnable races, so he needs to step forward. I'm not sold on him - though his last work leading into this race was a very nice one.
Mo Power, John Velazquez, 6/1: This is the other Pletcher horse, ridden by the top-choice jock for that stable. Like Rally Cry, he is a son on 2010 Champion two year old Uncle Mo. This is just his third race and his first outside of maiden company. Velazquez is a big boost for the horse, but at best he seems too raw to be ready for this one. I'll pass on Pletcher horses this weekend.
Conquest Big E, Jose Ortiz, 6/1: This colt is a son of Tapit like so many top runners are right now. I feel like the horse owes me money - I liked him heading into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, but his eighth-place finish was decidedly underwhelming. He won an allowance race a month after that outing but was a disappointing fourth in his three year old stakes debut behind current Derby favorite Mohaymen and top contender Greenpointcrusader. It seems like he is a step or three behind the elite horses. He could be good enough to be a part of the exotics here, though.
Laoban, Aaron Gryder, 15/1: This is a reasonably rare West Coast contender in this race. He was third last time out in the Sham Stakes, so there is some talent. A fever forced him to miss his next race out there, so he was directed to this one to get back on track. He had a lousy trip in the Sham, so he should be better if he had a good trip. He needs to improve significantly, though.
Vincento, Angel Arroyo, 20/1: I have a slight soft spot for this horse because his damsire, Grindstone, won the first Derby I attended in person. That's not enough, though. Most prep races have a horse in them that have no business being there. In this one that's Vincento.
Selection: This is one of those frustrating races where I have concerns about, or issues with, every horse in the field. In a case like that all you can really do is pick the best horse and hope for the best. With that in mind, then, Shagaf is the pick, and we'll just hope the price doesn't fall much from where it is.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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