Go back and watch the replay of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). See the horse stuck like glue to California Chrome under the wire for the first time? Watch him stride about a neck back of the eventual winner, then follow him around the final turn in third with as good a shot as any. When they hit the top of the stretch, it looks like he might have a chance to do it—that is, before California Chrome spurts away.
One thing about that runner, New York-bred Samraat: he's a fighter. While he finished fifth in the Derby on May 3, he comes back rested and ready to go June 7 in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), a house horse with a chance of acing his home state's biggest race and ending California Chrome's bid at a Triple Crown.
Dust will be shaken from the records of three long ago horses heading into the Belmont this Saturday thanks to Samraat and his run in the June 7 classic. Unless you're a racing pundit with a historical bent, the names Forester, Fenian, and Ruthless likely don't ring a bell. But those three are the only New York-breds to have ever won the Belmont; Ruthless, a filly, captured the inaugural Belmont in 1867; Fenian galloped home in 1869, and Forester got the job done in 1882.
Funny Cide was the best-known New York-bred to have attempted to join that trio in recent years, galloping towards immortality with a Triple Crown on the line in 2003, but we all know how that story ends.
If 132 years of history could be dashed by the plucky colt who made his mark dueling on the New York circuit, the win would also be a tribute to his sire, Noble Causeway, who died May 27 due to laminitis.
"He's not just a good New York-bred; he's a good horse, period," said trainer Rick Violette Jr. "He's very cool, he's very consistent, and nobody can sleep out there because he'll lay it on the line. All the intangible stuff, Samraat posesses. And training-wise things have been flawless, so you hope when you bring that kind of full hand to the table, it's a winning one."
Samraat will run at Belmont Park for the first time since last October, when he came to the races for Barnes & Noble executive Len Riggio's My Meadowview Farm and decided he rather liked this winning thing. In his first start, he aired by 3 1/2 lengths sprinting six furlongs. His second, he took by 5 1/2 lengths going 7 1/2 furlongs. He stretched out even further, to a mile and 70 yards, and won the Damon Runyon Stakes over fellow New York-breds by an eye-popping 16 3/4 lengths. It was time to go longer and step up to open company.
When Samraat took the Withers Stakes (gr. III) and the Gotham (gr. III) going 1 1/16 miles to cement a five-race winning streak, then ran a valliant second to Wicked Strong in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I), his connections knew he was something special. When he finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby, they were not disappointed.
"We were pretty much in the clear in the Derby. He got beat a lip for fourth money," Violette said. "He's been very manageable, and he always is. The Gotham was his big educational race. The Derby, with the intense pressure and the intensity of the paddock and the 150,000 people, that didn't affect him. He was very cool in the paddock and in the post parade."
Riggio, sitting with Violette at the June 4 Belmont draw breakfast, said Samraat is a great pride to him not only as a racehorse, but as a New York homebred. As chairman of Barnes & Noble, the largest bookseller in the world, and one of 16 members on the New York Racing Association board of directors, Riggio is a powerful player in the business and racing worlds. Yet he is also a quintessential New Yorker—born in Little Italy, graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and NYU, and owner of My Meadowview in Water Mill, N.Y.
"The knock on Samraat was he was a New York-bred, slightly built, a little toed out," Riggio said. "So I spoke to Samraat about it, and he said to me, 'Human beings are dumber than they think horses are.'
"He doesn't know about New York-bred. He looks to run. He says, 'Whoopee! I'm here!' As soon as he's on the track, he's happy."
Samraat may not have won the Derby, but his connections haven't lost their enthusiasm for his ability.
"Finishing fifth isn't shabby," Riggio said. "You're talking about 19 of the best Thoroughbreds in America. If you enter this game and you think coming in second is a defeat, you don't belong in the game. If you think coming in fifth in the Kentucky Derby is a defeat, you don't belong here."
Violette, thrilled with Samraat's training leading up to the Belmont, added, "He ran his eyeballs out. We sleep well at night. You can't ask any more than for a horse to give his all. If they do that, then shame on you if you're not satisfied."
Violette was born in Worcester, Mass., but makes his home in Mineola, N.Y. and has been winning stakes in the Empire State since 1985. President of the National Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, he is taking his third shot at the Belmont, having finished third with Citadeed in 1995 and 10th with High Finance in 2006.
"It's a different race, the mile and a half," Violette said. "The pace is different; the one-run horses, the come-from-behind horses, that doesn't always work out going a mile and a half because when they make their one run, they've already gone a mile and a quarter. They've used a lot of gas up to get to where they normally accelerate, and sometimes there's no gas left. so it's a totally different race. It's won a lot of time with horses on a slow pace that kind of grind and grind and keep going, and that's a little bit us."
According to Violette, one thing he heard from jockey Victor Espinoza—the rider of California Chrome—was feedback about his runner in the Kentucky Derby.
"After the race, Victor said Samraat was the horse he worried about because he kept looking and he was still there," he said. "We were really wide both turns, so things need to go right for us, no question about it...but he's trained great, he's eating well, he's moved well, he's happy, we're happy. It's been pretty cool. Things don't normally go this well. In the last breeze, it was a goose bump breeze. As easily as he accelerated, it's exactly how you want to come into a major race."
That breeze was at the trainer's base at Aqueduct Racetrack, a 1:47.55 mile May 31. Samraat breaks from post 7 under young jockey Jose Ortiz in the Belmont at 20-1 on the morning line. Ortiz has ridden him in all of his seven starts.
"California Chrome is a horse that's going for history, and we're all trying to throw something in his way," Violette said.