by Brian Nadeau of Horseplayer Now and Capital OTB TV.
Aqueduct: The GIII, $400,000 Gotham at 1 1/16 miles (Kentucky Derby qualifying points: 50-20-10-5)
#1 Laoban (15-1): The most well-traveled maiden in the country was scratched out of the GII Risen Star at Fair Grounds a few weeks back and now ends up in South Ozone Park in an effort to break through for that elusive initial victory. On the face of it there’s some talent here, and Guillot certainly hasn’t shied away from a challenge with this son of Uncle Mo, as he was third in Santa Anita’s GIII Sham when last seen in early January. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll see the top two in the race didn’t fire at all in their next starts for Baffert, so you’re allowed to wonder just how strong that effort really was. The gut says this is a name you’ll hear a lot of before the end of the year, but the reality is that he needs a lot softer to break through; thinking he makes his dent at Saratoga.
#2 Shagaf (3-1): The ML favorite has a chance of being bet off the board, as he’s one of the biggest buzz horses in the country and goes for a Brown barn that is routinely an underlay anywhere they run. Son of Bernardini looked stunning in his MSW win over the main track here in November but was much more workmanlike in winning an optional claimer in slow time over a tremendous longshot as well as fellow Gotham runner Rally Cry (third) at Gulfstream Park last time. With that being said, he did win by two and is bred to love the added turn and distance he gets to try today, not to mention that this inside draw will allow him to save all the ground into the first turn, so you’re allowed to expect a good run. But don’t lose sight of the fact that this is a big, big step up in class for a colt who has no edge on paper and will be a huge underlay on the board too; using underneath only.
#3 Adventist (4-1): Lightly raced runner passed a lot of tests when he was third to fellow heavy hitter Sunny Ridge in the local GIII Withers last time, as it was his first start past six furlongs, at two turns, against winners and in a graded stakes, so the fact he ran so big speaks volumes of his talent. Son of Any Given Saturday has certainly come to hand quickly for Gyarmati, who sure knows what to do with a nice horse, and his versatile style should allow him to sit a dream trip just off the pace, which looks honest but hardly fast. And he hasn’t missed a beat of late, judging by those AM drills, as that last five-furlong bullet was a real beauty, which means he’s sitting on another big, big effort; looms the main danger.
#4 Vincento (20-1): So which version of this New York-bred is showing up today, Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? His maiden win was awesome and that win two-back was fast enough to beat this crew, but they are sandwiched around two complete no-show efforts that left his backers, and likely Rodriguez, scratching their heads. But the good news is that he’s back for more—in one heck of an aggressive spot, too—and if you still believe, he’ll be about 20 times the 8-5 he was last time, not to mention that his pedigree is bred for this and beyond, as dad Include and damsire Grindstone were true two-turn horses. The waters get considerably deeper here, as this is his first foray outside the NYB ranks, but there are some positives in this corner, and if they go too fast early, he’ll pass more than a few late; thinking he outruns his odds.
#5 Mo Power (6-1): Reportedly will scratch and run in a local optional claimer Sunday.
#6 Conquest Big E (6-1): Expensive son of Tapit was a modest fourth in Gulfstream’s GII Holy Bull, but that was arguably the best Derby prep of the season, as we all know how good Mohaymen is, second-place finisher Greenpointcrusader is a legit Derby top-10 type, and third-place finisher Fellowship came back to run a solid third against the former in GP’s GII Fountain of Youth last weekend. And that was also this colt’s first start of the year, so he’s eligible to be tighter today for Casse, who is suddenly under the gun to have a big 3yo after a few of his best haven’t bridged the gap from 2. The problem here is that his two best runs have come on sloppy race tracks, so you get the impression he needs a little help from Mother Nature to run his best, and with a clear forecast it looks like he’ll need to prove it on dry land today; minor award may be his ceiling.
#7 Sunny Ridge (7-2): Impressive winner of the Withers did so off a nine-week layoff with only three published works showing, two of which were recorded with a sun dial, so the fact that he won says there may be a lot more in the tank for today’s effort. Versatile son of Holy Bull showed when he won the Sapling at Monmouth last year that he can come from off the pace, but then showed he can be right on it if they go slow when he won the Withers, so while this post isn’t ideal, he’s likely to be in the right spot when they turn for home. It looks like Servis is taking the same approach as last time, as his two works between the Withers have been extremely slow, but you get a lot more out of a race than from a few works, and with that last effort seemingly scratching the surface of what’s to come, you have to think he’s firing another big, big shot today; love his chances.
#8 Rally Cry (5-1): Go figure, another son of Uncle Mo in a graded stakes for 3yos; talk about the theme of 2015. This one has some major roadblocks though, as he drew poorly and will make his stakes and two-turn debut off a meek third to Shagaf in the aforementioned GP optional claimer. And while it’s nice to see Pletcher forge on, you get the impression it’s “throw something at the wall and see if it sticks” time for a powerhouse barn that is extremely light with Kentucky Derby prospects for this time of the year. The MSW win two-back at GP was solid, but he clearly regressed last time and may be going the wrong way, which means taking an underlaid price just because his trainer is a known commodity isn’t the way to beat this game; no thanks.
#7 Sunny Ridge