Road To The Triple Crown: John Battaglia & Gotham Stakes

The Road To The Triple Crown continues on Saturday with two Kentucky Derby prep races, the John Battagalia Memorial from Turfway Park in Kentucky. And the prestigious Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in New York. TheSportsNotebook takes a look at both.

If you’re looking for a good race to bet, stay away from the Battaglia. This is only a five-horse field, which I’d have to consider one of the major disappointments of this prep season. Furthermore, the top jockeys would be more inclined to take a mount in the $400,000 Gotham rather than the $75,000 race in Kentucky. Hence, Rajiv Maragh gave up Battaglia favorite Dynamical, who is currently listed at 5-2, but will now be ridden by the lesser-known Luis Martinez. Dynamical has only run two non-stakes races and yet to get a win. I suppose if nothing else this means a non-favorite can get a win here, but that this horse is seen as the top choice underscores the weakness of the field.

Mr. Prankster is next in line at 9-5, with a solid trainer in West Coast man Mike Maker. The horse won a couple stakes races during the Churchill Downs fall season, although he then lost big on a third stakes try over Thanksgiving weekend. Another option is State of Play at 2-1. Last September he won a nice stakes race at Saratoga in upstate New York, but has since come up short in big races at the Breeders Cup and an earlier Derby Prep, the Sam Davis Stakes in Tampa. The door is certainly open for either Ill Conceived at 7-2 and or even 15-1 shot Posey Rose to get a win and pick up a little cash as they try and qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

The Battagalia starts at 5 PM, meaning there’s plenty of cushion for TVG or HR-TV, the two horse-racing channels found among the sports listings in most satellite packages, to switch over the Gotham, which starts at 5:30 PM ET. Two years ago this race was won by I Want Revenge, who parlayed it into an bigger prep win at New York (the Wood Memorial, coming up later this spring) and ultimately into the role of Derby favorite, before a combination of injury and race-day rain forced him to scratch at The Run For The Roses. With a  13-horse field here, there are horses who are capable of emerging as early Derby favorite again this year.

We can start with Hansen, who’s a heavy favorite at 6-5, ridden by Ramon Dominguez and trained by Maker. I’m skeptical though. Hansen was also a heavy favorite at the Holy Bull Stakes in Gulfstream on January 29, and while he ran a good race, he came in second. This field is much stronger than the one he faced at Gulfstream, so while Hansen has a couple previous stakes wins, I don’t see where his resume merits making him such a heavy favorite, with the next horses down being in the 5-1 range.

The two most likely challengers are My Adonis and Dan & Sheila, each of whom have already made prep runs this year. My Adonis finished third at the Holy Bull, and has had some wins at off-Broadway tracks in Delta Downs and Monmouth Park. Dan and Sheila came in fourth in the Lecomte Stakes and has the incomparable jockey/trainer team of John Velazquez and Todd Pletcher to make the 8-1 betting odds seem even more attractive. My hangup is that I picked Dan and Sheila to win the Lecomte and they ran off the board, and he only has one other race on the resume, a minor win at Gulfstream. I’m looking to the longshots to step in Aqueduct on Saturday.

Regular readers know that when TheSportsNotebook looks for a longshot, we’re targeting a horse who has a good jockey and/or good trainer. Maragh gave up the favorite at the Battaglia to ride Maan at 15-1. This is a somewhat curious situation as Maan is normally ridden by Julian Leparoux, a fine jockey himself who will be at Gulfstream on Saturday. I’m not sure if there are contractual obligations causing this, but there’s no race at Gulfstream remotely as good as the Gotham. Maan has won a couple minor races and Maragh will give him every chance, but I don’t like that Leparoux either chose not to ride him or Maan’s connections didn’t push the regular jockey to stay with him on Saturday.

Kieran McLaughlin is one of New York’s better trainers and he’s entering Side Road at 12-1. This is an intriguing move here, as the horse has run four races in New York, none of them noteworthy, but improving and getting his first win five weeks ago. If you want to take a chance on an emerging horse, this is a good spot.

If getting a good jockey and good trainer is a part of finding a longshot, how about the ultimate triple crown? A jockey, a trainer and a name you like? I’ve got jockey Kent Desormeaux and trainer Dale Romans to pair up with a horse called Finnegan’s Wake…and I’m getting 20-1. How does the Irish in me even think of passing this one up (and the horse is owned by the Ireland-based Donegal Racing). Finnegan’s Wake doesn’t have a great resume, but if he didn’t you wouldn’t get 20-1. He did win a race in Gulfstream on New Year’s Day, so between that and having the jockey/trainer/name trifecta, I’m going all in on Finnegan’s Wake.