The Gotham featured an exciting three-horse stretch duel on the inner track at Aqueduct and Samraat posted an outstanding victory.
After traveling wide on both turns, Samraat surged to the lead in upper stretch and gamely repulsed stubborn foes Uncle Sigh and In Trouble to the wire. The 1 1/16-mile Gotham didn't answer any questions surrounding his effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles two months from now, but Samraat continues to distinguish himself.
Trained by Rick Violette Jr., the New York-bred colt is now perfect from five career starts and Samraat has virtually guaranteed himself a spot in the Kentucky Derby field with 60 points to his credit. Regardless of how he fares at Churchill Downs, Samraat figures to win a lot more stakes races if he remains healthy.
Two scoring races will be offered this weekend, the Tampa Bay Derby and San Felipe, and each offers 50 points to the winner.
Sam F. Davis winner Vinceremos, who is eligible for a $1 million bonus for sweeping the Davis-Tampa Bay Derby-Kentucky Derby, heads a 10-horse field at Tampa. At Santa Anita, Bayern will be the center of attention in his stakes debut. Unraced at two, the Bob Baffert charge exits a 15-length allowance romp in his first start at two turns and the speedy three-year-old is drawing comparisons to 2012 Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister.
Samraat displayed high speed in his first three outings, leading every step of the way as he defeated New York-bred rivals by a combined 25 lengths, but he's proven more handy in a pair of graded stakes attempts, settling nicely just off the pace in both Gotham and February 1 Withers. That versatility could serve him well going forward.
Regular jockey Jose Ortiz showed the utmost confidence, hand-riding him throughout the Gotham, and Samraat was spotting weight to Uncle Sigh (five pounds) and In Trouble (three pounds). He traveled about four paths wide into the first turn and continued to lose ground the rest of the way.
In Trouble and Uncle Sigh contested the pace from the start, with In Trouble narrowly showing the way along the rail, and Samraat advanced on the far turn to make it three abreast turning for home. He stuck a head in front about three-sixteenths of a mile from the wire and while the outcome remained in doubt, Samraat never surrendered the advantage.
It was similar to the Withers, where Samraat and Uncle Sigh battled determinedly through the stretch before Samraat edged away late.
Violette summed it up pretty well.
"A couple of races before the Derby probably toughens him, this was another stretch-long, hard duel, but Jose never hit him," the trainer said. "He's an honest racehorse and there might be a little left.
"Today, he graduated big time. His last race was a terrific race and this was a notch above that. He was pretty impressive today."
Samraat earned a third consecutive 99 BRIS Speed rating for the neck decision.
By Noble Causeway, Samraat is bred on top for longer distances but he hails from a mare by speed sire Indian Charlie. As a result, Samraat falls into a familiar category -- his pedigree looks suspect for 1 1/4 miles but the possibility exists that he can outrun it.
Samraat will continue to stretch out, against an expected deeper field of rivals, in the 1 1/8 mile Wood Memorial on April 5.
Uncle Sigh and In Trouble both ran well in defeat.
A maiden winner on December 27, Uncle Sigh was making his second stakes attempt and may have been a little intimidated racing in tight quarters between rivals during the stretch drive. He bumped slightly with both Samraat and In Trouble, and the stewards flashed the inquiry sign to take a closer look at the contact before making the race official.
Uncle Sigh never quit trying, finishing a neck better than In Trouble in third, and there's plenty to like about the New York-bred colt at this stage in his career.
"He might have been a little bit cautious down in there, but we're getting better," trainer Gary Contessa said of the runner-up. "He's certainly developing."
The improving colt is by Indian Charlie, which rates as a legitimate concern, but Uncle Sigh figures to receive stamina from his female family -- he's out of a mare by Preakness winner Pine Bluff and counts last year's 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap runner-up Percussion as a half-brother.
The Wood is next for the top three finishers from the Gotham.
In Trouble was making his first start since winning the six-furlong Futurity on September 29. Give him credit for a bang-up effort following the layoff -- Tony Dutrow had him ready -- but I'm viewing him as more of a middle-distance specialist. He can surprise me next time.
An abundance of speed is readily apparent when perusing the past performances of this year's Kentucky Derby contenders. We still have nearly 60 days to go, including a final round of prep races, and the landscape could shift dramatically, but a large number of horses figure to be taken out of their element or forced to battle on a wicked pace if the situation doesn't change.
Cairo Prince, one of the main players two months out, serves as a prime example. He possesses an abundance of tactical speed, racing within 1 1/2 lengths of the pace after the opening half-mile in all four career starts, and figures to be close on a speed-favoring track in the Florida Derby.
Front-runners were done in by a ridiculous pace set-up in last year's Kentucky Derby -- :22 2/5, :45 1/5 and 1:09 4/5 -- and Cairo Prince probably doesn't want to get caught chasing similar fractions on May 3.
The list of speed horses is extensive.
The top three from the Gotham -- Samraat, Uncle Sigh and In Trouble -- all like to race up close. And the February 22 Fountain of Youth produced a pair of runners -- Wildcat Red and General a Rod -- who will bring plenty of gas to the equation.
Tapiture opened 2013 with a front-running win in the Southwest and probably doesn't want to be rating in midpack on Derby Day. Strong Mandate set the pace in Breeders' Cup Juvenile and could show more speed in his upcoming preps after a slow start and troubled trip in the Southwest.
Risen Star runner-up Albano has only one way to go and Almost Famous will be committed to the front end in his next start after missing the break in the Fountain of Youth. Bobby's Kitten showed speed in all his turf wins last year. Cousin Stephen and Surfing U S A are a couple of speed horses in Saturday's Tampa Bay Derby.
Five horses from the California contingent -- Bayern, Midnight Hawk, Chitu, Chelios and Kristo -- have all posted front-running wins in their recent starts.
Throw in a wildcard like Constitution, a front-running allowance winner on the Fountain of Youth undercard who appears very talented. He could seriously add to the pace if he qualifies for the Kentucky Derby.
Every horse can't be on the engine in the Kentucky Derby. I'll Have Another was able to display a different dimension at Churchill Downs, rallying successfully from off the pace for the first time, but new tactics are always a risky proposition for a speed horse.
Four of the last nine Kentucky Derby winners were 16th or worse after the opening half-mile.
In terms of deep closers, Shug McGaughey is double-fisted. The Hall of Fame conditioner captured his first Kentucky Derby last year via Orb, who rallied from 17th after six furlongs, and McGaughey's readying a pair of top contenders this year in Honor Code and Top Billing.
Risen Star winner Intense Holiday and Holy Bull runner-up Conquest Titan are also confirmed late runners. And Candy Boy, who opened the year with a victory in the Robert B. Lewis, rallied from 10th to finish a good second in the CashCall Futurity last December.
Throw in allowance types Mexikoma and Tonalist, as well as Battaglia Memorial runner-up Poker Player, and that's about the extent of it. Most of this year's Kentucky Derby prospects like to race on or close to the front end.
Kentucky Derby Top 10
- Top Billing -- Recorded an excellent third after breaking from post 12 in Fountain of Youth; he's a formidable late presence.
- Cairo Prince -- Holy Bull romper has never run a bad race in four career starts; Florida Derby is next.
- Honor Code -- A.P. Indy colt is back on track for McGaughey, posting three recent works; excited to see him return in the 3/15 Rebel.
- Strong Mandate -- Never found a rhythm but finished a good second in Southwest after troubled trip; capable of more for Lukas.
- Candy Boy -- Captured the Lewis with complete authority; Sadler charge heading to Santa Anita Derby next.
- Bayern -- Talented colt is light on experience; makes stakes debut in San Felipe
- Samraat -- New York-bred colt continued to impress in Gotham; headed to the Wood Memorial for Violette.
- Intense Holiday -- Displayed a strong finishing kick to get the money in Risen Star; rates as an up-and-comer for Pletcher.
- Conquest Titan -- Holy Bull runner-up will bring his late kick to the Tampa Bay Derby.
- Tapiture -- Asmussen trainee captured Southwest by open lengths and is a Churchill Downs stakes winner.