Samraat and Uncle Sigh, the New York-bred duo who finished one-two by some distance in the February 1 Withers, will have a rematch over Aqueduct's inner dirt on Saturday in the Grade 3, $500,000 Gotham, a 1 1/16-mile test which serves as a final local prelude for the $1 million Wood Memorial on April 5.
The Withers, contested at one mile and 70 yards, had six starters, but the race wound up a two-horse affair between Samraat and Uncle Sigh. The latter, favored at 11-10, led through moderate splits of :24, :48 1/5, and 1:12 3/5, with Samraat only a half-length behind at each call. The stretch duel everyone expected went the way of Samraat, who steadily wore down his speedy rival and edged clear to win by a length, with Uncle Sigh more than 10 lengths clear of the third-placed Scotland.
"There's no question more racing will help him," said trainer Rick Violette of Samraat, who is undefeated in four starts. "In the Gotham, we'll be racing out of our own stall on a racetrack he's familiar with. It's an upgrade as far as competition goes. He has to step up but if you watched the prep races over the weekend, there were a few horses who stepped up and a lot who didn't."
Trainer Gary Contessa is confident Uncle Sigh will fare well again.
"I'm super pleased with the way he's coming into the race," Contessa said. "I was hoping for a good post position because it can play a big part in the landscape of this race. He's trained good, had a good work (Monday) morning, and we'll see what happens."
A similar pace scenario could develop in the Gotham, but there is clearly more depth for the undefeated Samraat and Uncle Sigh to contend with. Among the notable newcomers is In Trouble, who drew for the rail for what will be his sophomore debut. The Tony Dutrow trainee won both starts last season, taking a key 5 1/2-furlong maiden at Saratoga by a three-quarters of a length and then the six-furlong Futurity at Belmont by 2 1/4 lengths.
"I don't know (about the distance), but I feel good about trying it," Dutrow said. "He's excellent; he's really, really happy. I feel the horse is ready to give us what he's got Saturday."
Extrasexyhippzster is also making his two-turn debut in the Gotham on the heels of a pair of stakes wins. Triumphant by five lengths in the six-furlong Don Rickles over the Big A's inner track in late December, the Stroll colt next traveled to Maryland for the $100,000 Miracle Wood, which he won under a hand ride by 3 3/4 lengths over Laurel's one-turn mile.
Several Gotham candidates are attempting to rebound off recent poor showings in other classic preps. Classic Giacnroll, a solid runner-up in the January 4 Jerome, was 14 lengths adrift of Samraat in the Withers, while Financial Mogul, most notably second to Cairo Prince in the Nashua last November, finished eight lengths behind that same rival in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream last out. Noble Cornerstone, who forms an entry with Samraat due to a common ownership, was a non-threatening seventh in the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs last time, a race for which he was favored exiting a close loss in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park.
The ever-dangerous Todd Pletcher barn will be represented by three entrants in the Gotham, including Harpoon, who missed by a nose in the Sam F. Davis in his stakes debut. The other two have form to find; Master Lightning has been unplaced in all four stakes appearances, while Monopolize adds blinkers here after finishing sixth to the highly-rated Top Billing in a Gulfstream allowance.
"Normally I wouldn't like the outside draw (for Harpoon) but after his last race from post position 1, I would say it's a good post position for him," Pletcher said. "We're hoping Master Lightning shows up with his 'A' game. He's shown in the past he's capable but he's been a bit erratic. This would be a good time for him to show up."
The Gotham field is rounded out by Deceived, who finished nearly 20 lengths behind Samraat in his only prior stakes try in the Damon Runyon for New York-breds.