While the smart New York-based trainers escape the harsh winner and general dullness of Aqueduct and head south to Florida for the winter, there are those who bravely choose to stay behind. For them the Gotham Stakes serves as both a way to earn a ticket to the Kentucky Derby and a warmup for the Wood Memorial. Unfortunately, the New York prep races haven't been hugely relevant in recent years, but hopefully things change this year.
This is the race that gave us greats like Secretariat and Easy Goer, and I Want Revenge, who was robbed of his shot at greatness when he was injured the day of the Derby in 2009, so it has the ability to produce fierce contenders. It's a much easier race this time around than the other prep this weekend, the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream .
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There are 10 horses entered, but we'll only look at six because you sure can't call this field deep. Here's how the field sets up (odds are track morning line odds):
El Areeb, Trevor McCarthy, 6/5: This colt has won four in a row, including the Jerome and the Withers, which are the biggest prep races Aqueduct has before this one. He hasn't just won those races, either - he has dominated them.
He's the home track favorite - even though he is based at Laurel Park and has been training there - and has plenty of class. His damsire is A.P. Indy, so it's no fluke that he hasn't been tested by the distance so far, either. It's hard to find too much to be critical about with this horse right now.
I hate being completely positive, though, so there are two things that aren't ideal. First, rider Trevor McCarthy isn't exactly my first choice for big races on horses I like. He has primarily ridden on lower-tier tracks and has only nine career graded stakes wins - two on this horse. Mike Smith wins that many graded stakes in a weekend sometimes. I'm not saying McCarthy can't win, or that he is a major liability, but I like top horses to get all the help they can. Second, I don't like the indecision on the part of the connections. Trainer Cathal Lynch has had more than 4,000 career starts, but he had won just one graded stakes before this horse arrived. With a trainer inexperienced on this stage, I like to see them follow a specific plan to get to the Derby. The opposite was true here. He was previously aimed at the Florida Derby and a few other races before settling on this, the obvious choice. Heading to the Florida Derby would have meant a long layoff before that race and a long one between that race and Kentucky, so at least he avoided what would have been a horrible decision. Still, I wish there was more decisiveness.
Those factors aside, this horse is the class of the field and the one to beat. He has to be the pick and will win if he has a good day. What will be more interesting is what happens down the road. Horses have typically struggled to take form from Aqueduct and move it to bigger stages - especially in hotter climates like the Florida Derby.
So Conflated, Mario Gutierrez, 8/1: This horse has the same connections as I'll Have Another and Nyquist - which means I am predisposed to hate everything about the horse. This is an interesting choice for trainer Doug O'Neill, too - instead of sticking to his home base in California he was originally aiming for the Risen Star last weekend, but he got a lousy draw and aimed here instead.
He finished behind some pretty nice horses in two late fall maiden races but was placed first by disqualification in the second. Then he headed to Golden Gate to win the California Derby. We can discount that performance for two reasons, though - it was on a synthetic track, and it was so slow it was almost glacial.
As I am sure you can guess, I'm not a believer. The only thing I like is that his sire, Eskendereya, won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct by about a million lengths and would have been Derby favorite before he was injured.
J Boys Echo, Robby Albarado, 8/1: Dale Romans brings this colt here. He was a very impressive maiden winner in November, dominating the field after a lousy start. He ran in the Withers and finished third, but that was his three-year-old debut and he got stuck outside, so I'm not concerned about that. He has a lot left to give. I don't think El Areeb is losing, but if he does then this is the most likely winner. At the very least he needs to figure prominently in the exotics at this price.
Action Everyday, Rajiv Maragh, 10/1: Todd Pletcher has won many, many races in New York, so it's a little surprising that he has only won this one twice. This horse is unbeaten, but in his two starts he has only won a maiden race and an allowance at Tampa Bay Downs, so this is a massive step up in class. I respect Pletcher in prep races, but if this horse wins he'll do it without me.
True Timber, Kendrick Carmouche, 6/1: I love the breeding of this horse - he's a son of Horse of the Year Mineshaft out of a mare by Horse of the Year Tiznow. He has class to spare. So far, though, all he has done is chase El Areeb from well up the track - he was third in the Jerome and second in the Withers but never a major threat in either. I like the upside, and I'll bet him to claim a piece, but I don't see him winning.
Cloud Computing, Manny Franco, 5/1: You have to at least look at any Chad Brown horse in New York. This colt just made his debut on Feb. 11, winning a maiden race here at Aqueduct. It was a very nice win, but this is obviously a lot to ask. Still, he could be a piece. Brown actually entered two, but Apartfromthecrowd (12/1), who was fifth in the Withers behind El Areeb, just doesn't get my pulse racing.
The Pick: El Areeb is going to win this race. And betting on him at this price is going to suck. I'll use him in the win spot in exactas and trifectas over J Boys Echo and True Timber.
This Saturday is a magnificent day for the ponies, and Doc's Sports expert Raphael Esparza has picks in both big stakes races - click here for free picks for these races - the same ones that paying members get - and the sign up is hassle free and no credit card is needed. Not only do we get one stakes race but we actually get to see two stakes races this Saturday. The first one is the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and the stake race is the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
We all know that the Kentucky Derby is the most famous horse race of them all, but the BEST value is in all the Kentucky Derby prep races before the big event. Raphael Esparza; Former Race and Sports Book director from the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas , has all the inside connections and the years of experience. Build your Kentucky Derby bankroll with the pony expert. Last year Esparza cashed with multiple stakes races as he hit big in the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Esparza is coming off some nice cashes at the Fair Grounds last weekend, and he is looking for another Winning Saturday at the track.
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