Snake Mountain and Voodoo, two horses trained by Jimmy Jerkens, figure to be the favored betting interest in Saturday's Grade 3, $100,000 1 1/16-mile Aqueduct Handicap, a race of importance on the national racing scene.
Before dismissing the Aqueduct Handicap as just another stakes on the inner track, one should consider last year's winner, Evening Attire, who went on to score in the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders' Cup and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup later in the year en route to being named winner of the Secretariat Award as New York's Horse of the Year for 2002 by the New York Turf Writers Association.
Like Evening Attire last year, Snake Mountain could prove to be a strong force in the top handicap races later in the year. Snake Mountain defeated Windsor Castle two starts back in the Stuyvesant and Windsor Castle has since returned to win the Hal's Hope at Gulfstream.
Following the Stuyvesant, Berkshire Stud's Snake Mountain beat a similar group in the Queens County Handicap for his third straight win. The five-year-old son of A. P. Indy will have a new rider in Mike Luzzi as Jose Santos remains in Florida.
Boosting Snake Mountain's credentials in the Aqueduct Handicap is his fondness for this facility. He is undefeated in five starts here, two on the inner track and three on the main track. The reason for that may be simple.
"I think he does better in the cold weather because he tends to get hot," Jerkens said. Jerkens thinks Snake Mountain could fit nicely in Grade 1 handicap races this year, but he is in no rush to ship the horse to Florida, even though Windsor Castle flattered him in the Hal's Hope.
"I'm not crazy about shipping him to Florida," said the trainer, hinting that the cold-to-warm climate change might not be good for Snake Mountain. "I wouldn't mind waiting until the spring after he sheds his winter coat to run him in the top races."
With an entrant that appears to be very strong in 120-pound highweight Snake Mountain, it is somewhat odd that Jerkens would also enter Voodoo, a five-year-old gelding in search of his first stakes victory.
John and Susan Moore's Voodoo has been brilliant at times, mostly in allowance races. He ran in some of the toughest races last year, such as the Met Mile, not to mention sprints like the Tom Fool, Vosburgh, Carter and General George. His best race may have come in the Grade 1 Carter when he missed to Affirmed Success by a length.
For Voodoo's first two-turn race since he was fifth in the 2001 Wood Memorial, he will be coming off a powerful 11-length win going a one-turn mile over the main track in late November against a much weaker group.
Voodoo is 1-for-2 over the inner track, winning an entry-level allowance at a mile and 70 yards in late 2000 and running second in the 2001 Whirlaway.
"Voodoo ran very well in his last start, but he didn't beat anybody," Jerkens said. "I think he might have a better chance around two turns because he's stronger now than he has been in the past."
Jerkens envisions Voodoo having the lead and Snake Mountain sitting
close behind. Centennial Farms' Ground Storm seems to be the chief threat to the Jerkens entry, based on his fondness for the inner track. From five starts over the winterized oval, Ground Storm has four wins and suffered his only defeat, a second-place finish in last year's Aqueduct Handicap, at the hands of Evening Attire. Ground Storm is 5-for-22 on all other surfaces.
"He loves the inner track," said the seven-year-old's jockey, Javier Castellano. "I rode him a few times last year on the inner track, and I knew he liked it back then."
Ground Storm won last year's Stymie and three other allowances on the inner track, including a December 18th victory as the favorite that somewhat took Castellano by surprise.
"He hadn't run in a couple of months and Bill Mott's assistant, Leana Willaford, told me that he hadn't been working all that well in the mornings," said Castellano, who is poised to win his first New York title should the inner track finish like it started. "Leana has done a very nice job with him."
For Castellano, Ground Storm represents a chance to get deeper into Bill Mott's barn and gain more stakes horses from other trainers as well throughout the year. Six of Castellano's eight 2002 New York stakes winners came at Aqueduct.
"It would be the biggest highlight of my career to win this meet," Castellano said. "I'm ready for it and I'm riding with a lot of confidence. I'm trying to find good horses for stakes in the spring and summer."
Cat's At Home, owned by Edward Evans, will take another shot at Snake Mountain Saturday. The six-year-old son of Tabasco Cat was defeated four lengths finishing third in the Queens County.
My Man Ryan and Tempest Fugit exit the December 18th allowance won by Ground Storm. My Man Ryan had the lead in the stretch of that race, but could not hold off Ground Storm while Tempest Fugit's rally fell short.
Tempest Fugit finished third behind Evening Attire and Ground Storm in last year's Aqueduct Handicap.
Complete field in post position order with jockey and weight:
1. Voodoo, R. Migliore, 114
2. Tempest Fugit, C. Lopez, 114
3. Cat's At Home, A. Gryder, 114
4. Mr. Determined, L. Chavez, 109
5. Snake Mountain, M. Luzzi, 120
6. Ground Storm, J. Castellano, 117
7. My Man Ryan, H. Vega, 111