Two New York-breds stood out in a six-horse field heading into the $250,000 Withers Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct Racetrack, and those two put on quite a show while developing a rivalry that could continue on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Battling from the start of the 1 1/16-mile event for 3-year-old runners while facing open company for the first time, My Meadowview Farm's undefeated Samraat and rival Uncle Sigh separated themselves from the field. Uncle Sigh, who broke alertly from the inside post, gained the advantage planned by trainer Gary Contessa and led Rick Violette trainee Samraat by half a length through a quarter in :24 flat.
Up the backside Samraat was glued to Uncle Sigh's outside hip pressing a half of :48.22, never relenting as his inside rival kept the edge. The frontrunners opened about eight lengths on the rest of the field, and turned for home through three-quarters in 1:12.77 with nothing between them.
Samraat, set to the task on the outside by Jose Ortiz, had to dig deep against a determined Uncle Sigh, who did not flinch while in tight quarters on the rail under Pablo Morales. The final furlong proved key for the eventual winner, as he put away his rival and inched ahead inside the eighth pole to get the victory by a length. Final time was 1:46.31 on the fast inner track; it was an additional 10 1/4 lengths back to third-place finisher Scotland (VIDEO).
"It was a long drive," Violette remarked. "Uncle Sigh was kind of tested in his first race. We haven't been. We left the rest of the field. As fast as we went early, it wasn't like all of a sudden somebody from out of the clouds was going to get there. Hats off to both horses. They ran a huge, huge race today, and I think they'll show up later in the year."
According to Violette, the April 5 Wood Memorial (gr. I) could be the next target for Samraat, although the March 1 Gotham (gr. III) is next in the New York series for runners headed to the Kentucky Derby. The victory in the Withers awarded Samraat 10 points in the starting lineup for the first Saturday in May; he ranks eighth on the overall list of potential Derby runners.
"This was a tough race," Violette said. "We might wait for the Wood...We're in a good spot now. If he's kind of kicking the walls down he can certainly come back for the Gotham, or we can wait for the Wood or the (March 29) Louisiana Derby (gr. II). There are a lot of options."
Samraat will head back to Florida in the meantime; he had been training at Palm Meadows in preparation for this start.
One who hopes the Withers runner shows back up in the Gotham is Contessa, who wants another try with Uncle Sigh.
"Maybe he got me on experience today," Contessa said. "I look forward to 'Rocky II.' That's how I feel after a race like this; this was 'Rocky', I'm ready for 'Rocky II.' He ran well. I think the difference was that I, having the No. 1 hole, had to set the pace. My horse isn't very experienced and I think he's really going to mature off this effort. He never stopped running. I look forward to the rematch. Hopefully Samraat comes back for the Gotham. I'll be there."
A homebred by Len Riggio's My Meadowview out of the Indian Charlie mare Little Indian Girl, Samraat now owns a perfect 4-for-4 record with earnings of $283,200. Both Samraat and Uncle Sigh came off impressive victories, the former a 16 3/4-length winner of the Dec. 18 Damon Runyon Stakes going a mile and 70 yards on the inner track, the latter breaking his maiden for Wounded Warrior Stables by 14 1/2 at the same distance Dec. 27.
"It's a shame he got beat because he was trying so hard," Morales said of Uncle Sigh. "He just got outrun today. He gave me everything he had, he never stopped. I think if I would have been on the outside and Samraat had been on the inside then I'd probably beat him, but I did everything to beat him and it wasn't enough."