OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Shadwell Stable's highly regarded homebred Shagaf lived up to his lofty expectations to take the 64th running of the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham by 1 ¼ lengths Saturday afternoon at Aqueduct Racetrack, earning 50 points to virtually lock down a spot in the Kentucky Derby on May 7.
Breaking from the inside post on a track that had favored inside speed through much of the day, Laoban hustled to the front of the seven-horse field, setting fractions of 23.33 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 47.16 for the half. Shagaf, ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., was joined in the middle of the pack by Rally Cry and Sunny Ridge as the trio filed in behind the leader, who swept through.
Ortiz waited patiently aboard the 6-5 favorite as Grade 3 Withers hero Sunny Ridge appeared poised to pounce on the front runner nearing the quarter pole. Angling into the three path as Loaban repelled Sunny Ridge's challenge, Shagaf revved up in the middle of the track and vaulted past an unsuspecting Loaban to get clear under the wire.
"I never thought [definitely] I had it," said Ortiz, who was uninjured when he was unseated two races earlier. "It's a stakes race and there are a lot of good horses in here. He did everything right. He was like a professional. When I gave him his cue, he took off. He's a nice horse. Chad is going little by little with him. I think we could see him in the Derby; he's good, we have to see what happens."
With an unbeaten three-race record to his credit, Shagaf completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.90.
"I'm very proud of his effort today," trainer Chad Brown said of the Bernardini colt. "Coming into the race it was our plan was to be able to teach him something and possibly still win the race which it was what we were trying to do. The horse broke so sharp Irad told me he 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 for a big horse is going to come in handy later on."
The winner returned $4.50 for a $2 win wager and gave his owner, trainer and jockey each their first wins in the Gotham.
Laoban finished three-quarters of a length ahead of a late-closing Adventist in third. Sunny Ridge checked in fourth, while Conquest Big E, Rally Cry and Vincento completed the order of finish. Mo Power was scratched.
As part of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, the Gotham is worth a total of 85 points to the top four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 scale, but will likely not be Shagaf's last race before the first Saturday in May.
"Absolutely the plan is stay here in New York for the Wood Memorial," said Brown. "I didn't even book a flight back for him regardless of how he fired today. We were always going to commit to leaving him here."
Won last year by Shadwell Stable's Frosted, the Wood Memorial is set for April 9 and will award 100-40-20-10 Derby points to the top four finishers.
Earlier on the card, Mei Ling went straight to the front and never stopped, cruising to a 3 ¼-length victory over Saythreehailmary's in the $150,000 Heavenly Prize Invitational for fillies and mares.
Ridden by Jose Ortiz and outfitted with blinkers, the 5-year-old Empire Maker mare ticked off fractions of 24.17, 48.05 and 1:12.82 while running well clear of her six rivals. Armed with a 3 ½-length lead straightening for home, Mei Ling was never challenged and hit the wire in 1:45.07 for the 1 1/16 miles.
"She's a better a filly when she's able to run away and we were able to break good and get the lead along the rail," said Ortiz. "She's gotten better every time I've ridden her and she showed that today."
The victory was the first of the year for Mei Ling, who opened her 2016 campaign by finishing second in the Ladies Handicap and third in the Maryland Racing Media stakes at Laurel Park. Sent off 7-2, she returned $9.60 for a $2 win bet and earned $90,000 for owner Barry Schwartz. Overall, she is 4-6-4 from 18 starts for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Saythreehailmary's was a neck in front of Pangburn and Include Betty, who dead-heated for third Favored Cali Star finished fifth, followed by Storied Lady and House Rules.
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