By Noel Michaels


Noel is chief handicapper for The Race Palace, Long Island's premier OTB wagering facility, and director of Personnel for Nassau OTB. He was a long time racetrack correspondent and online Editor for the Daily Racing Form. He's also the best-selling author of many best-selling handicapping books, including , The Players Angle Almanac, Winning Angles A to Z,The Handicapping Contest Handbook (DRF Press) and Noel's latest: Handicapping The Big Winter Meets.

Many racing fans and bettors with an eye on the Kentucky Derby are looking ahead to the weekend of March 13 with its key Derby preps in races like the Tampa Bay Derby, San Felipe, and the Rebel at Oaklawn, which will each be featuring the next step of one or more headline horses on their road to the Run for the Roses on Saturday, May 1.  However, while next Saturday does figure to be an important day for the Derby hopes of several horses, this Saturday, March 6, should not be overlooked in the process.

There are two sneakily important Kentucky Derby prep races to be run on Saturday, May 6 - one on each coast - with the Gotham Stakes headlining an 11-race card at Aqueduct, and the rescheduled Sham Stakes being run as a part of the stakes-packed Big Cap card at Santa Anita, which also includes the G1-Santa Anita Oaks featuring the top 3-year-old filly in the land, Blind Luck, who is the early favorite to win the Kentucky Oaks and is also considered to have an outside chance to face the boys on the First Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

Both the Gotham and the Sham are lacking headline performers - most of them ran two weeks ago in a plethora of Stakes races, or will be running in next weekend's aforementioned 3-year-old stakes. Nevertheless, both the Gotham and the Sham should not be overlooked in terms of their importance, because while no horse is considered a key Kentucky Derby contender coming in, the winners of both races and possibly some other will undoubtedly emerge from both of these races to stamp themselves as true-blue Derby contenders from this weekend forward.

First of all, let's look at the Sham Stakes, which is a very important race on the 3-year-old circuit for several reasons, not the least of which being that the race is contested at 1 1/8 miles - making it among the first key prep races being run at this important stepping stone distance leading up to the 1¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby.  While many supposed Derby contenders around the country are racking up wins in shorter races and proving very little in terms of their ability to negotiate 1¼ miles, the horse or horses that emerge from the Sham's field of 10 horses will face little in terms of distance questions from this point forward.

Much of the buzz in the Sham is centered around Setsuko, who has a stalking running style and has shown ability on both turf and artificial surfaces so far for trainer Richard Mandella, who is very high on the colt's abilities despite his half-length allowance /  optional claiming loss last-time out. Nobody would be surprised if distance-loving Setsuko emerged from the Sham victorious, and few would keep him off their short-list of serious Derby contenders if he pulls off the win on Saturday.

The same could be said for a few other Sham hopefuls, including Kettle River, The Program, and Nextdoorneighbor.  Kettle River is a perfect-2-for-2 since stretching out to routes including one turf win and one synthetic win. A Sham victory would make him 3-for-3 around two turns and give him a record that would be hard to ignore.

Nextdoorneighbor is one of two early Derby contenders so far this season from the unlikely Mike Machowsky stable. Machowsky also trains the undefeated Caracortado, and Nextdoorneighbor could earn a Derby berth next-door to his stable mate with a big effort on Saturday.

Finally, not to be left out, Bob Baffert also has a legit Sham contender entered Saturday with The Program trying to make it two wins in a row since losing to Kettle River back on Jan. 6. Baffert has not been outspoken about The Program to date, instead choosing to focus on his plethora of other Derby contenders. However, that could chance quickly if The Program can win the Sham, and after all, remember that Real Quiet was not Baffert's "first stringer" the year he won the Kentucky Derby and finished a nose away from the Triple Crown. That year, Indian Charlie was Baffert's standout . . . at least until Derby Day.

After the Sham, all of the aforementioned horses will still need to go on to answer surface questions, since the field looks heavily-weighted toward synthetic track specialists, but that is a discussion for another day. First let's find out who is the fastest horse on the West Coast to date at the important distance of 1-1/8 miles, and then we'll address the lingering surface questions at a later date.

Speaking of surface questions, that is one of the key storylines in Saturday's running of the G3- Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, where the presence of the heretofore grass and Polytrack-raced European invader Awesome Act, who will be trying dirt for the first time on Saturday.  Before simply discounting his chances, first keep in mind that his connections have gone out of their way to ship Awesome Act to New York from England just for this race, and have reached out to Eclipse Award-winning jockey Julien Leparoux to pick up the mount. Leparoux is flying to New York from his winter base in Florida in order to pick up the mount, and it's doubtful he'd make such a move if he wasn't optimistic about Awesome Act's chances.

When last seen on the track, Awesome Act shipped stateside for the Breeders' Cup, and ran very well despite failing to hit the board, closing strongly late for fourth, beaten only a length and a quarter in the Juvenile Turf.

Beyond Awesome Act, who you could see either winning the Gotham or finishing completely out of the money, contention in the Gotham runs deep. It's easily possible to make a legitimate case for pretty much every horse in the 10-horse field. This not only makes the Gotham an interesting wagering puzzle, but it will also mean that the eventual winner will have earned his Grade 3 win over a solid field, in a two-turn race on dirt, and therefore should not be ignored as a premier Derby contender as we look ahead to more serious prep races down the road.

Most interesting perhaps is Todd Pletcher's Three Day Rush, who lost to both Peppi Knows and Afleet Again last time in the local prep for the Gotham in the Whirlaway Stakes, when Three Day Rush had the worst trip of them all after essentially getting wiped out around the first turn by a rival who bolted on the first turn, carrying Three Day Rush out to the middle of the track along with him. Three Day Rush should face no such trouble in the Gotham breaking from the cozy rail post position, and we all know that Todd Pletcher has been winning everything in sight for 3-year-olds. Can he stamp another contender from his stable on Saturday with Three Day Rush?

On a regular day at Aqueduct (the Gotham is a standout day on the otherwise ho-hum winter inner track meet), the handicapping both begins and ends with a discussion of Ramon Dominguez, and we certainly could not fault anyone who decides to take that approach in the Gotham. Dominguez owns the inner track, is running away with the jockey title, and had his pick of almost every horse in this field. The horse he ended up on, however, looks like a little bit of a sleeper at 8-1 on the morning line. Turf Melody exits a mid-pack effort in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, and before that had two wins in a row including a $200K stakes win at Remington Park in his two-turn debut.  Overlook Ramon Dominguez and Turf Melody at your own risk on Saturday.

And that's really what the entire day is all about on Saturday in terms of the road to the Kentucky Derby. Ignore the day at your own risk, because there's a lot of quality horses running in these meaningful races on both coasts, and the horses who emerge on top surely should not be ignored as we get closer and closer to the First Saturday in May.


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