Shagaf overcomes speed-favoring track, takes Gotham
By winning the 1 1/16-mile Gotham, the son of Bernardini earned his first 50 qualifying points toward Derby eligibility as part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series. The Chad Brown trainee, who will stay in New York to point for the Wood Memorial (G1) on April 9, now joins the undefeated Mohaymen, the current Derby favorite trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, as a leading classic hopeful for Shadwell.
The 6-5 favorite in the Gotham, Shagaf had plenty of adversity to overcome in the race. Nearly an hour before post time, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. was involved in a mishap on the gallop-out of the $150,000 Heavenly Prize. After sitting out the next race, Ortiz was back in time to guide Shagaf for this important engagement.
A potentially more serious obstacle to victory was Aqueduct's fast inner track, which had played favorably to inside speed all day. Settled in a ground-saving position behind longshot Laoban, who set uncontested splits of :23.33, :47.16, and 1:11.69, Shagaf was no sure thing to show the requisite class to overcome the pronounced bias.
Moving off the inside and swinging three wide for the stretch run, Shagaf took aim at Laoban, who by then came under pressure from Withers (G3) winner Sunny Ridge. However, the bias was so strong even that class horse could not get past the speedy maiden Laoban. Shagaf was a different animal altogether, surging inside the final sixteenth and drawing off to a 1 1/4-length win in a time of 1:45.90. He paid $4.50.
"I'm very proud of his effort today," Brown said. "Coming into the race it was our plan was to be able to teach him something and possibly still win the race. The horse broke so sharp, Irad told me had to take a hold of him to see what everyone else was going to do. He put him in a good spot. He was little on and off the bridle down the back side catching that dirt for the first time, but once he got in the clear he was much more comfortable getting away from the kickback. The fact he can secure a spot early with his positional speed is going to come in handy later on."
If there was one negative to Shagaf's performance, it was that his final time was four-fifths of a second slower than that posted by the five-year-old mare Mei Ling in taking the Heavenly Prize.
Laoban, making his first start since running third in the January 9 Sham (G3) at Santa Anita, held second while retaining his maiden status after four career starts. Finishing third was Adventist, who pretty much followed Shagaf around the track but did not have the necessary stretch punch. He had also run third in the Withers.
Sunny Ridge, whose connections have stated the Kentucky Derby is unlikely to be a serious target, was probably affected the most by the bias as he raced three wide around both turns. He might deserve some slack for this performance should he move on to the Wood Memorial, but his connections are probably correct in their assessment that he's a better horse for the Haskell Invitational (G1) in July rather than the Derby.
After the withdrawal of Mo Power, the field was rounded out by Conquest Big E, Rally Cry, and Vincento. All perhaps might have been affected somewhat by the bias, but in the case of Conquest Big E it appears he needs a wet track to show his best.
Shagaf opened his account with a sterling, six-length maiden win over Aqueduct's main track November 22. He followed with a two-length allowance score at Gulfstream on January 29. Both races were at a one-turn mile.
A homebred foaled in Kentucky, Shagaf was produced by the stakes-winning Unbridled's Song mare Muhaawara. She in turn was reared by Grade 1 winner Habibti, which makes her a half-sister to Grade 2-winning marathon specialist Eldaafer.
Shagaf goes on to the Wood with earnings of $298,800.
(NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography)