Edgar Prado and Mayakovsky win the Gotham.

Edgar Prado and Mayakovsky win the Gotham.

NYRA/ Adam Coglianese

Aqueduct Race Report: Lost Boys

Published in the March 23 issue of The Blood-Horse
Michael Tabor knows racing. Winner of the 1995 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with Thunder Gulch and countless other major international events, he's been around the sport long enough to know when it's time to dream and when it's time to stay awake and deal with reality. That is why he accepted Mayakovsky's victory in the March 17 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) with his eyes wide open and his emotions held in check.

Just the day before, Tabor had watched his newly acquired Smooth Jazz run Booklet into the ground in the Florida Derby (gr. I) as planned, only to have Nokoma, who was to be the recipient of the seek-and-destroy mission, flounder at the back of the pack. For Tabor, that "rude awakening" put him in a more realistic frame of mind regarding the Gotham. And when it was over, he was perfectly content to let his trainer, Patrick Biancone, indulge in any slumberous visions of roses and mint juleps.

"Tonight, I am going to dream about the (Kentucky) Derby," Biancone said following Mayakovsky's 3 3/4-length victory over Saarland. "Maybe tomorrow, when I wake up, I can change my mind. Tonight, we're allowed to dream."

If Tabor is going to dream, it's more likely to be about Johannesburg, who was celebrating St. Patrick's Day with the Coolmore gang back home in Ireland. Tabor, along with his Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien, has been trying to envision how they can get the 2-year-old champion back to America battle ready for the first Saturday in May. Now, he has to start thinking along the same lines with Mayakovsky, who was making only his third career start in the Gotham, and his first in 6 1/2 months following a hairline fracture of the left hind leg. The injury was discovered after his strong second to Came Home in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), which came over a month after he had won his career debut, breaking Saratoga's 55-year-old track record for 5 1/2 furlongs.

Despite the fact Mayakovsky and Saarland both were making their first start of the year, the Gotham never looked like anything other than a two-horse race. Not only had none of the other five starters been tested for class, the only other horse under 12-1 was Two Shakes, a winner of a $50,000 claiming race and an allowance race, both at six furlongs.

While Mayakovsky was at Santa Anita being given a series of brilliant works by Biancone, Saarland was at Gulfstream waiting with trainer Shug McGaughey for a scheduled allowance race to fill. Three times Gulfstream tried to get it to go, and three times only three entered. So, McGaughey shipped the Remsen (gr. II) winner back home to Belmont and aimed for the Gotham, even though he and owner Cynthia Phipps were fully aware a one-turn mile was not the big, long-striding colt's game.

"All I'm looking for is a good race," McGaughey said. "I've said all along, I just hope the Gotham gets him to the Wood (Memorial, gr. I), and the Wood gets him to the Derby."

Mayakovsky, however, was trained hard by Biancone to make up for all the time he had lost. Biancone, who previously had trained 1983 Horse of the Year All Along, began tightening the screws on Mayakovsky on Feb. 21, working him six furlongs in 1:11 4/5 then followed a week later with a bullet 1:10 4/5 work. Following a seven-furlong drill in 1:24 1/5 on March 6, he blew him out a half in :46 breezing six days before the Gotham on March 12.

One interested and impressed trainer watching carefully was Paul Assinesi, who was preparing his 3-year-old Holdthehelm for the Lane's End Spiral Stakes (gr. II) on March 23.

"I watched him work his half in :46, and he went out in :58 and change and 1:10 and change," he said. "The next day he was on the track, galloping a mile and a half. He didn't even have a walk day. It's going to take a rocket ship to beat him in the Gotham. Whoever takes him on better have their running shoes on."

As it turned out, Saarland did have his running shoes on, but he was going to need a lit match in them to run with Mayakovsky. The son of Matty G, sent off at 7-10, made a magnificent appearance in the paddock, as did Saarland, who closed at odds of 2-1. At the start, Mayakovsky cruised to the lead on his own and appeared to be making light of an opening quarter in :22.54 and a half in :45.13. Saarland, who had never demonstrated speed in any of his races, was only about three or four lengths off those hot fractions. When John Velazquez decided to uncork some kind of run out of Saarland on the far turn, the son of Unbridled responded and pulled to within a couple of lengths of a still-cruising Mayakovsky through three-quarters in 1:09.45, which had to make McGaughey one happy trainer.

Turning for home, Edgar Prado let Mayakovsky pick up the tempo and he bounded away, opening a 5 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole. Saarland could not keep up off those fractions, but kept plugging away trying to pass 31-1 Philly Park shipper Parade of Music for the place spot. Mayakovsky, however, did begin to shorten stride slightly in the final sixteenth, while drifting out toward the middle of the track. Saarland finally passed Parade of Music and was nibbling away at Mayakovsky's lead at the wire. The time for the mile was a sharp 1:34.90.

"The drifting out in the stretch was not a product of him getting tired," Biancone said. "He did the same thing at home when he was working, and he did that in his maiden win at Saratoga when he broke the track record. Now, we have to decide what we're going to do. If we decide to go on the Derby trail, we will send him back for the Wood Memorial."

McGaughey was delighted with Saarland's effort. "This gives me a lot of confidence the way he finished up," he said. "This is what he needed, both physically and mentally. He'll be staying in New York for the Wood Memorial."

(Chart, Equibase)