Gotham Diaries: Derby by Way of NYC

Events / Travel

Gotham Stakes day is one of my favorite days at Aqueduct: the horses running in the headlining race are major players on the road to the Kentucky Derby, and they’re getting mature enough in their three-year-old season to start separating the serious contenders from the pack. Plus, there are always great supporting races throughout the day, so it’s a fantastic way to spend a Saturday for anyone in the New York metropolitan area. And, the name of the race makes me think of Batman, and that’s always a good thing, right?

I headed to the subway at about 11:45 Saturday morning, and it took almost no time to get to the track. It actually would have taken a lot less time, but I met up with my co-worker Jim Mulvihill on the way there and we ended up getting so engrossed in discussing the upcoming races that we missed our first stop. Oops! This is what happens when you leave horse racing nerds unattended on the train. 

So when we got to the races, I had plenty of time to get set up in the Aqueduct press box, say hi to a few friends up there, and then grab a quick bite to eat. I went for the chicken tenders sold on the first floor of the Grandstand, and they were a fantastic choice. I know I was singing the praises of the onion rings last time I came out here, but the tenders may have been even better. Once I was fortified with delicious fried chicken, I was ready to head out and take in some fantastic horse racing. 

The first major race of the day was the Tom Fool Handicap. This is a race for horses three years of age and up, and it’s run over six furlongs. A furlong is equal to 1/8 of a mile, so this race is ¾ of a mile long. This race had attracted a talented group of Thoroughbreds, but as I was studying the form on the way to the races something caught my eye: the #3 horse, Saturday’s Charm, had a morning line (meaning the odds that he was expected to run with) of 15-1. The reason that caught my eye was that Saturday’s Charm had run second in this exact same race last year, and he seemed to be improving coming into this year’s edition of the Tom Fool. If I could get him at that price, I figured he’d be a steal to bet on.

As I went to the paddock to watch the horses be saddled before the Tom Fool, I paid special attention to him. I was glad I did – he looked amazing! 

I was ready to bet on him with both hands … until I checked the tote board where the odds are posted. Apparently I wasn’t the only sharp handicapper out there – his odds had fallen dramatically to 9-2 (aka 4 ½-1.) There were plenty of other good horses in this race, so I didn’t want to play my former longshot if I wasn’t going to get some great odds. Oh, well – so I wouldn’t bet this one.  At least I still had a horse to root for! 

There were plenty of people who were also trying to find their horse; a huge crowd was gathered around the paddock scoping out the runners. 

I headed out to the track to take photos of the Tom Fool, and as the horses made their way onto the oval I was kind of glad I hadn’t bet: there were some seriously athletic-looking Thoroughbreds heading to the post and I couldn’t decide who would win.

Finally, it was race time. As the horses rounded into the homestretch, I didn’t see my No. 3 horse leading the pack; instead, it was favorite Strapping Groom charging to the front in impressive style.


When Strapping Groom got back to the winner’s circle, jockey Irad Ortiz got a well-deserved fist-bump before getting his official victory photo taken. 

The next big race of the afternoon was the Top Flight Handicap; this race is for female horses (known as “fillies” for the under-five set and “mares” for the five-year-olds and up) and is run over a mile and a sixteenth. This field included some major horses, most notably Teen Pauline. She’s a seriously talented filly and was a standout even in this excellent crowd. 

But since I was in the mood to hunt for longshots today, I took a close look at the horses in the paddock to see if there were any money-making opportunities at hand. The horse that stood out to me was Centring; she is absolutely huge and stunningly beautiful. 

Seriously: every photographer at the track was remarking on how beautiful she looked. 

I was eager for the race to begin: I hadn’t had time to bet, but for me picking horses is more about the satisfaction of being right than the actual betting. I like looking at the horses and then deciding who I think should do well. So while I wasn’t sure that Centring could beat the tough Teen Pauline, I was pretty sure she would put in a big race.

So it was with great anticipation that I waited for the start of the Top Flight; and when the horses broke out of the gate, I noticed that favorite Teen Pauline (No. 2, yellow helmet) had an awkward start. 


But as I said, she’s a tough, fast filly; and when the horses got to the finish line she was ahead with daylight separating her from the second-place finisher (who was Centring, by the way!) 

I always love finding the grooms (aka the caretakers of the horses) after a winning race. These are the men and women who dedicate their lives to taking care of the horses we are so lucky to watch, and they deserve recognition for all of their hard work. Teen Pauline’s crew was clearly overjoyed and exchanged high-fives and fist-bumps as they waited for their filly to come back to the winner’s circle. 

When Teen Pauline came back, she looked very pleased with herself, as did jockey Irad Ortiz. They even took a moment to scope themselves out on the JumboTron in the Aqueduct infield: 

She strutted toward the winner’s circle like she knew exactly what she’d done … which was win $120,000 in just over one minute and forty-five seconds. That’s pretty impressive!


After Teen Pauline’s big win, it was time for the main event: the Gotham Stakes. This is a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby: the winner gets 50 points toward the Run for the Roses, and that’s usually enough to guarantee a spot in the Derby. So a lot was on the line as the horses headed into the paddock to get ready for the race of their lives.  

The horse who really caught my eye was Harpoon. I should also explain that I am an absolute sucker for a gray horse; I just think they’re all so beautiful. So when I caught sight of Harpoon I was a smitten kitten. 

But Harpoon wasn’t the only gorgeous horse it the Aqueduct paddock  - defending Withers champ Samraat was in the house and looking good. 

Uncle Sigh, the horse that finished second to Samraat in the Withers, was also outstanding. I wonder if the Duck Dynasty guys know that he can run so quickly?

With the sun starting to set behind the Aqueduct Grandstand, the three-year-old Derby contenders made their way to the post and entered the starting gate. The race was on! 

When the horses rounded the turn for home, it was a rivalry revived: Withers Stakes 1-2 finishers Samraat and Uncle Sigh were duking it out to the finish, and once again Samraat got his head in front at the wire. 

As we waited for the horses to come back to the winner’s circle, I had the chance to see Samraat’s team celebrating their win. Here’s Samraat’s groom (right) getting congratulations from a friend: 

And a team hug:

As winning jockey Jose Ortiz rode Samraat back, he gave the colt a big pat on the neck. 

When Samraat got close to the winner’s circle, owner Louise Riggio was there to give him a little love. The two seem to have a great relationship. 

And once they got to the winner’s circle, friends and family gathered around to commemorate Samraat’s courageous win with a photo. 

As Samraat made his way back to his barn, I was overcome by that peculiar and very particular feeling that only happens at this time of year: Derby Fever. It’s that weird little tickle in the back of your mind as the minutes edge their way to post time before a prep race. It’s the voice inside of your head as you sit watching the horses make their way to the starting gate that tells you that you may just be seeing the next Big Horse. You try to push that notion to the very back of your subconscious, but the thing is: you yearn to believe that voice. The best thing about Derby prep season is that feeling of possibility; it’s the chance that you may actually see the beginning of something that only gets better over time. I can’t what to see where the rest of the Road to the Roses brings us!

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