• O'Neill 'very excited' about G3 Gotham contender So Conflated • Lynch sticking with routine for Gotham fave El Areeb
OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Reddam Racing's California Derby winner So Conflated has settled nicely into his temporary digs at Aqueduct Racetrack following his Tuesday arrival for the Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham on Saturday, said trainer Doug O'Neill.
So Conflated, 8-1 on the morning line and the only other previous stakes winner in this year's Gotham field aside from two-time Grade 3 winner El Areeb, will get another chance to step up in class following his three-quarter-length victory in the California Derby over Golden Gate Fields' synthetic Tapeta surface on January 21.
Mario Gutierrez, who has been aboard the ridgling in all three of his career starts, has the return call on So Conflated, who was entered in the Risen Star February 25 at Fair Grounds but was scratched after drawing the outside post in a field of 14.
The gray son of Eskendereya has two dirt starts to his credit, both in southern California, where he ran behind a pair of well-regarded colts from the Hall of Fame barn of Bob Baffert. He was third to eventual Grade 3 Sham runner-up American Anthem in his December 3 debut at Del Mar and came back in maiden special weight three weeks later, crossing the wire second behind another Baffert trainee, Dabster, a $1 million 2-year-old-in-training purchase, in a blanket finish before being elevated to first after the winner was disqualified for interference.
"He's just mentally very tough, very competitive," O'Neill said of So Conflated, speaking by phone Thursday morning. "He's been very solid. We're very excited about him. For him to run third in his debut behind American Anthem, who is one of Team Baffert's top Derby hopefuls, this guy figured to get better with more distance.
"In the Cal Derby, Mario rode him with a lot of confidence and he displayed his ability down the lane there," he noted. "He really stretched out and looked great. The [Tapeta] is similar to turf, it takes a patient horse to do what he did, so I'm using it as a positive. I think it really showed his mental maturity to win that race the way he did. And the fact that he's already won on the dirt is a vote of confidence too. I think it's a good way to come into this race. It sounds like it's chilly and windy there, but hopefully he's a windy city horse."
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Trainer Cathal Lynch doesn't plan on venturing far from the tried-and-true formula that has already gotten his multiple Grade 3 winner El Areeb to 6-5 favoritism in Saturday's Gotham.
Lynch said the horse will train at his Laurel Park home base on Friday and ship up with Lynch's son and assistant, Charlie, later that day, the same procedure El Areeb followed prior to his victories in the January 3 Jerome and the February 4 Withers.
"So far, it's the same routine," said Lynch. "We try to keep everything the same. Fingers crossed, everything's good. He breezed good on Sunday and went back to the track the last couple of days so everything's going according to plan, you know how that goes in horse racing."
The 1 1/16-mile Gotham, which serves as the local prep for the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 8, will offer the winner 50 qualifying points as the first Kentucky Derby Championship Series qualifying event of the season at the Big A. Additionally, the runner-up will receive 20 points, with 10 points going to third and five points to fourth. The previous round of preps, including the Jerome and Withers, was worth 10-5-2-1 points to the top four finishers.
The Irish native has charted El Areeb's course down the Derby trail with cautious optimism, originally expecting to skip the Gotham and target next month's Wood instead, worth 100-40-20-10 points, as the colt's final prep for a possible "Run for the Roses" on May 6 at Churchill Downs, but was ultimately persuaded to reconsider by the horse himself, who posted a sharp pair of recent workouts at Laurel.
"[He's been] acting like he wants to go do something, so I didn't know if I really felt like sitting on him for another four weeks if he's going right," said Lynch.
El Areeb enters the Gotham with 20 qualifying points from his two local prep wins, to rank him fourth on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard this week, and a strong showing on Saturday could clinch his spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Lynch hopes that another good effort will further bolster El Areeb's credentials and offer the colt's connections greater flexibility heading into the spring racing season.
"If we're lucky enough to jump up there and be first or second, it gives you 50 or 20 points and that should be enough to get you in based on the last few years," said Lynch, who is assisted at Laurel by his sons Charlie and Anthony. "Then it gives you the option if you have to go to the Wood or not.
"The horse is going to take us there, we're not going to take the horse to the Derby," he added. "We're not going to force anything. If it happens, we'll be delighted to go. We're not going to put any more pressure on the horse, he's carrying enough weight already."
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Calumet Farm's True Timber will enter the Gotham coming off a series of solid works, including a bullet breeze on February 24 at Belmont Park. His time of 47.88 seconds over four furlongs on the training track was the fastest of 52 horses at the distance.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said the Mineshaft bay colt will look to break better out of the gate after stumbling at the start in a runner-up effort to Gotham favorite El Areeb last out in the Grade 3 Withers on February 4.
"He's doing great," McLaughlin said. "We were hoping El Areeb would skip this one, but he didn't, so we're in tough again. He's going to be tough to beat. We have a lot of respect for him."
True Timber, who is 1-1-1 in three starts on the inner dirt track, recorded a career-best 85 Beyer Speed Figure in the Withers, which was his first start at the Gotham distance of 1 1/16 miles. Off as the 6-1 third choice, True Timber drew post 6 with Kendrick Carmouche in the saddle.
"He stumbled last time, so if we don't do that again, it'll help," McLaughlin said. "Hopefully we can get closer and have things go our way this time. The distance is no issue. He's improving all the time."
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No stranger to taking the path from the Big Apple to the Kentucky Derby, trainer Todd Pletcher has entered undefeated Action Everyday in Saturday's Gotham for St. Elias Stable.
A son of multiple graded stakes winner The Factor, Action Everyday made his debut on December 23 at Tampa Bay Downs, winning by four lengths and picking up an 82 Beyer Speed Figure. He followed that effort by taking an optional-claiming race on January 27 at Tampa Bay.
"He's stepping up in competition," said Pletcher. "He's 2-for-2 in wins at Tampa. He was a little green in his second start, actually more green in his second start than his debut. We're interested to see how he's going to handle the step up in class but he's been training with some nice horses this winter in Florida and we feel like he's held his own, so this will be his true class test."
Entered with blinkers for the first time, Pletcher hopes that Action Everyday will show the same improvement in the afternoon as he has since donning the new equipment during morning training.
"Mainly, he was a little reluctant to load," Pletcher said of the colt's January 27th win. "He drifted out when he made the lead and actually kind of pulled himself up a bit. He was just very green when he made the lead, so hopefully the blinkers will keep him focused throughout the race. Hopefully we'll get over and save some ground and follow someone through on the first turn."
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Due to Aqueduct Racetrack's live racing cancellation due to extremely high winds on Thursday, Sunday's card will be expanded to 10 races and will offer the popular Late Pick 5, starting with Race 6.
Sunday's first post is at 12:50 p.m. Post time for Race 6 is scheduled for 3:20 p.m.