amNY at the Track | Gotham Stakes could see a Kentucky Derby dark horse emerge

Gotham Stakes contender Lugan Knight
Lugan Knight held off Arctic Arrogance to win the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct on Jan. 7, 2023.
NYRA/Adam Coglianese

The Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack this Saturday is a wide-open affair that could see a new, speedy Kentucky Derby threat emerge — at possibly high odds.

Since turning back to a one-turn, one-mile race in 2018 after the track’s renovation brought the inner dirt track to an end, the Gotham has been something of a gray area on the Derby trail. The distance and one-turn configuration is favorable to both route horses and sprinters, so depending on the stamina and pedigree, the winner may not even be pointed to the Kentucky Derby, opting instead for one-turn stakes like the Pat Day Mile on Derby Day.

The Gotham winner, whoever it is, will get 50 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby, and essentially clinch a spot in the starting gate. A full field of 14 runners will enter the Aqueduct starting gate for Saturday’s Gotham Stakes, and all indications are they will be flying out of the mile chute.

The race is loaded with front-running speed, led by Lugan Knight, who won Aqueduct’s Jerome Stakes at the same distance in January. Don’t be surprised to see him go right to the lead along with a number of other pacesetters, many of whom are shipping in from out of state.

They include Carmel Road, a former Bob Baffert trainee who ran second in the Los Alamitos Futurity back in December; Transect, who won both his career starts this year in a pair of Turfway Park sprints; Recruiter, winner of four straight including the Parx Nursery at Parx Racing in Philadelphia; and a pair of Brad Cox-trained runners in Slip Mahoney, who won a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct last out; and Eyeing Clover, winner of two recent sprints at the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park.

Chances are a speed duel will develop early on what’s normally a slow winter track at Aqueduct. The question becomes whether any of the front-runners will have the stamina to go the distance, survive the early duel and hold off any closers if the pace falls apart in the stretch.

Hoping to pick up the pieces are closers such as Uncorrelated, a Chad Brown runner who won his only start, a maiden sprint at Aqueduct in January; General Banker, who finished third last out in the Withers Stakes; Fort Warren, second last out in Santa Anita’s San Vicente Stakes; and Clubhouse, who was second last out for trainer Todd Pletcher in Aqueduct’s Jimmy Winkfield Stakes for sprinters.

Lugan Knight is a deserving morning line favorite in the Gotham, but the influx of out-of-towners and front-running speed could doom his chances. The biggest threats in the field, not surprisingly, are both of Cox’s entrants – and he’s already got a loaded stable on the Derby trail.

Eyeing Clover is intriguing. His Oaklawn win was a gutsy close finish, but his most recent victory in the Fair Grounds was as dominating as it was fast, drawing away with ease under a hand ride. Slip Mahoney was in all kinds of trouble in his maiden win, and flashed plenty of speed and stamina to boot.

If the pace holds up, it’ll be tough to beat either Eyeing Clover or Lugan Knight. But a pattern has emerged on the Kentucky Derby trail this year that might give one pause in betting a front-runner in the Gotham Stakes. 

So far, in prep after prep, the pacesetters have completely disintegrated in the last quarter-mile, with closers – usually longshots – trudging on by.

And two longshot late runners in the Gotham field, both local runners, could keep that pattern alive.

General Banker, the veteran of the field (he’s already run 10 times in his career, an almost unheard-of number for Derby contenders at this stage), could be the biggest benefit of a pace breakdown. A horse for the course, he’s never finished worse than third in five lifetime starts at the Big A.

Meanwhile, Clubhouse looked like a horse in need of another couple of furlongs in his last race, a 6 furlong sprint; not only will he get the extra ground he wants in the Gotham, but he’ll also be reunited with local jockey Kendrick Carmouche, who won with him two starts back at 7 furlongs. 

My picks: General Banker, Eyeing Clover, Clubhouse

Rebel recap: Watch out for Reincarnate

Confidence Game may have impressed with his upset win in last Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, but the best performance in the contest might have come from third-place finisher Reincarnate.

Nothing went Reincarnate’s way; it was his first start on a sloppy track after spending his career on fast southern California ovals, and last Saturday, he wound up getting shuffled to the back of the field rather than getting his usual front-running spot.

But jockey John Velazquez gave Reincarnate a great, ground-saving trip on the rail. Velazquez weaved his way through the field on the far turn, then shifted to the outside in the stretch, looking poised to power on by for the finish line.

Then came the dagger; Reincarnate got squeezed mid-stretch by Bourbon Bash and Red Route One, who finished second. Nonetheless, Velazquez and Reincarnate re-rallied, stayed to the outside and got up for the show spot.

Reincarnate will likely be back at Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby on April 1, with a Kentucky Derby berth up for grabs. Don’t overlook him in your wagers.

Kentucky Derby top 10
Odds courtesy of Churchill Downs