By Gary West, special to KentuckyDerby.com
For now, he’s just the King of Queens, but don’t underestimate him. In May, with his place in the Churchill Downs starting gate virtually reserved, he could attempt to extend his dominion to Kentucky.
Samraat, whose name is an ancient Indian title meaning “king” or “emperor,” jumped to the top of the Kentucky Derby leaderboard after winning Saturday’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. He’s not one of the more celebrated 3-year-olds perhaps, but the 50 points he earned Saturday bumped his total to 60; and so he’s just ahead of Intense Holiday, the winner of the Risen Star Stakes, with 53 points, and Wildcat Red, the winner of the Fountain of Youth, with 50.
In finishing second in the Gotham, Uncle Sigh earned 20 points, giving him a total of 24; and In Trouble, making his first start in five months, picked up 10 points for finishing third. Within a half-length of each other at the wire, all three ran well enough to suggest they could improve and could indeed become contenders for the 140th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. In fact, Samraat’s winning time for the 1 1/16 miles, 1:44.44, was about three lengths faster than Teen Pauline’s a race earlier, in the Top Flight Handicap.
Although unbeaten in five races, Samraat seems to be approaching the Kentucky Derby quietly, inconspicuously even. But pundits should be forgiven for underestimating him, if they consider him at all, because few Derby horses, generally speaking, ever emerge from a snow-encrusted winter in Queens, N.Y. Except for his debut at Belmont Park, he never has raced outside of Queens, where some horses, like some guys with oysters, develop an inexplicable fondness for the winterized inner track. And in the first three races of his career, Samraat defeated New York-breds.
But it’s impossible to watch his effort Saturday and not be impressed. As his trainer, Rick Violette, said, in the Gotham, Samraat “proved he’s a racehorse.” In fact, the King of Queens is a racehorse of quality.
And, as with any athlete performing at a high level, his intelligence adds to effectiveness. A speedster in his first three outings, where his talent enabled him to dominate, Samraat has learned to accept the cues of his rider, Jose Ortiz. When he didn’t break sharply, Samraat willingly cruised into a stalking position. And so he raced four-wide in the first turn, behind In Trouble and Uncle Sigh, who took the field through an opening half-mile in 48.30 seconds.
That might seem uncommonly slow, but actually was moderate. Over the dull Aqueduct surface, the half-mile splits for the other two-turn races that day were 47.89, 49.90, 48.41 and 49.45.
Samraat advanced in the second turn, and the leaders entered the stretch three abreast. From there, they all had their chance; but Samraat simply outfinished his rivals, and he did so without alarm or panic. Nor did he receive any encouragement from Ortiz’s whip. Although jostled around between horses, Uncle Sigh finished determinedly, a neck back. And In Trouble, who dug in gamely along the rail while making his first start since winning the Futurity at Belmont in September, was another neck back in third.
They’re all pointed in the right direction, they’re all capable of improvement and they’re all going to meet again April 5 in the Wood Memorial.
A couple horses stepped out of the shadows over the weekend. Making his first start for trainer Nick Zito, Spot won the Swale Stakes at Gulfstream, rallying from fifth and running right by the 2-5 favorite, No Nay Never, in mid-stretch. A son of Pulpit, Spot has a pedigree that suggests he could improve around two turns.
His winning time for the seven-furlong Swale was 1:22.44, which highlights another horse that ran Saturday at Gulfstream. Making the second start of his career after winning his debut in January, Anchor Down won a conditional allowance race in 1:21.67. In other words, the handsome gray son of Tapit ran about four lengths faster than Spot in the Swale. Although far behind the division’s leaders in terms of experience, he’s one to watch.