Remsen Stakes winner Saarland makes his 2002 debut in the Gotham Stakes.

Remsen Stakes winner Saarland makes his 2002 debut in the Gotham Stakes.

Saarland, Mayakovsky Make 2002 Debuts in Gotham

Bettors at Aqueduct on Sunday will basically be clueless when it comes to wagering on the one-mile Gotham Stakes. The two overwhelming favorites in the field of seven, Saarland and Mayakovsky, not only will be making their first start of the year, they have absolutely nothing in common.

Saarland has already won the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes, while Mayakovsky has never been farther than seven furlongs. Looking at the Gotham logically, Saarland appears to be the only legitimate Kentucky Derby contender, as Mayakovsky has little racing experience, has not run in 6 1/2 months, and does not have a 1 1/4-mile pedigree. For the Gotham, however, he has been working brilliantly at Santa Anita, and trainer Patrick-Louis Biancone has been concentrating on building a strong foundation and getting him fit.

As a Derby prep, the Gotham's main focus will be on Saarland, who desperately needs to turn in a big effort to make up for the race that never filled at Gulfstream. The son of Unbridled has been ready to run for several weeks now, and he'll have to get out of two races – the Gotham and Wood Memorial – what trainer Shug McGaughey had hoped he'd get out of three.

"Florida was a little tricky this year," McGaughey said. "I know he wants to go two turns. He won't show much speed in there. I'm hoping he relaxes and comes with a good run through the stretch. That will give me something to get him to the next race. He looks good, he's had time to develop, he's grown a lot since last year, and he's fresh.

"We gave him some time off in Florida. He was walked under tack. The racetrack was deep and cuppy and not to his liking. They changed the track after the Hutcheson, but it was too late to go in the Fountain of Youth. There was an allowance race I wanted to run him in, but it didn't go. They brought the allowance race back twice as an extra, but
it still didn't go. Saarland's future is ahead of him. A one-turn mile is not his gig. I'm just looking for a good, solid race out of him. I would be elated if he won. When you look at him now and you look at him a year from now, you're going to see a totally different horse."

Mayakovsky made a rather auspicious racing debut last summer by breaking the 5 1/2-furlong track record at Saratoga in his career debut, a record which had stood for 55 years. In his second start, he was thrown right into the grade I Hopeful Stakes and ran a solid second to Came Home. But a hairline fracture of his left hind leg put him on the shelf for the remainder of the year.

This year, he has turned in a series of awesome works, including a half-mile breeze in :46 on Tuesday. "We gave him time off and he came to my barn in California in December," Biancone said. "Time is running out and I've been running against the clock to have him ready for the Gotham. He's worked fast but he's been very relaxed. He lacks experience, but he is a smart horse. Edgar (Prado) worked the horse a couple of weeks ago and couldn't believe how much he had changed. He's grown and is more mature than last year. It's a tough field and going a mile off a long layoff won't be easy, but the one turn may help him."

Mayakovsky will break from post 2, assuring he will be on or near the pace, while Saarland drew the outside post. Regular rider John Velazquez will be aboard.

The remainder of the field is made up mostly of horses who have been running short, some for a claiming tag. Tank's Expectation has started 11 times in his career, all in sprints. Claimed for $40,000 at Woodbine last October, the son of Valid Expectations is coming off a second to Smooth Jazz in the 6-furlong Best Turn Stakes. Aaron Gryder will ride for Maryland-based trainer Dale Capuano.

"This will be his first race going a mile, but I don't think it will be a problem," Capuano said. "His seven-furlong race at Laurel (on January 17th) was pretty good. He got to waiting on horses late in the lane, but still won by open lengths. He's not by any means a big horse. This may be as far as he wants to run. I'm hoping we're catching Mayakovsky and Saarland at the right time. This is a good time to see what we've got. The Best Turn should set us up for a good run."

Rum Splasher was a last-minute addition by trainer Patrick Reynolds. Winner of the Colin Stakes at Woodbine last year, the son of Bucksplasher is one of the Gotham starters who is bred for a distance. In his last start, he finished second in a mile allowance race at Aqueduct to Gotham starter Heir D'Twine.

"He ran well the other day," said Reynolds. "We were on the fence but decided to take a shot in here. The top two horses haven't been out in a long time. I've got more stakes wins than Mayakovsky. Norberto Arroyo will ride Rum Splasher, who was purchased privately earlier this year.

Heir D'Twine, trained by Stephen DiMauro, defeated Rum Splasher by a length last time out following three straight defeats in allowance company. Previously, the son of Twining had broken hos maiden for a $35,000 claiming tag.

The Richard Violette-trained Two Shakes is two-for-three lifetime, with his two victories coming in a $50,000 maiden claiming race, and most recently, a six-furlong allowance race on Feb. 18.

Rounding out the field is the Philly Park-based Parade of Music, winner of a 7-furlong optional claiming allowance race at Laurel on Feb. 15. Trained by John Servis, he has won three of his six career starts, and has never finished out of the money.