During the afternoon of March 2, the already revamped edition of the March 10 Gotham Stakes (G3) got another tweak.
After doing their best to look into the crystal ball before the March 3 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park, the connections of grade 1 winner Free Drop Billy made the decision to scratch the son of Union Rags and re-route him to the one-turn prep race at Aqueduct Racetrack the following week.
The catalyst was a desire to give Albaugh Family Stables' chestnut colt a path of lesser resistance on the famously taxing Road to the Kentucky Derby. And while their forecast for the Fountain of Youth didn't exactly play out, they are hopeful Free Drop Billy will get the qualifying points and conditioning he needs Saturday.
"Honestly, we thought—and I will take the blame a little bit—but I didn't think Good Magic was beatable," Albaugh Family Stables' general manager, Jason Loutsch, said of the juvenile champion, who wound up third in his season debut, beaten by Free Drop Billy's stablemate, Promises Fulfilled. "And I don't like going into a race thinking we're running for second. Our goal has been in the last few years to try and find the easiest positions to put our horses in before we put them in the Kentucky Derby. So we just felt (the Gotham) was a better opportunity for us to get the points we needed, being that the (Fountain of Youth) was coming up so salty."
Free Drop Billy might not have a divisional champion to contend with Saturday, but the one-mile Gotham still presents its share of challenges for the Dale Romans trainee as he heads a field of nine entered in the $300,000 contest, which offers 50 qualifying points to the winner toward a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1).
Both Free Drop Billy and graded stakes winner Enticed were cross-entered in Saturday's Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) at Tampa Bay Downs as a backup, in case inclement weather prevents them from shipping from Florida to New York. A Tex Sutton flight bound for New York is still scheduled for March 8.
While the Gotham has been contested over 1 1/16 miles since 2006, the race was reverted back to its former distance of eight furlongs this season after Aqueduct replaced its inner track with a turf course. While the one-turn mile figures to be in the wheelhouse of fellow grade 1 winner Firenze Fire, it will mark the first time Free Drop Billy has cut back in distance since running second by a neck to Sporting Chance in the seven-furlong Hopeful Stakes (G1) in September at Saratoga Race Course.
It was after that Hopeful effort that the copper-colored colt produced his "wow" moment, winning the 1 1/16-mile Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland in October by four lengths over eventual graded stakes victor Bravazo. Though he threw in a head-scratching ninth-place effort in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), Free Drop Billy rebounded with a solid 3-year-old debut, showing some improved tactical speed while running second to Audible in the Feb. 3 Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
"We know he ran some really good one-turn races last year as a 2-year-old, so he has a turn of foot that fits (in the Gotham)," Loutsch said. "We're still going to get the amount of furlongs we need to get to the conditioning we need for the first Saturday in May with three planned prep races. What's so exciting about him is now, he'll do what you want him to do. You watch his last two works, and ... last year he would never relax like that.
"Now he goes along nice and easy, just cruising around, and gallops out really strong. If it's a slow pace he'll be up there close, and if it's fast, we can stay back and make a run late. He's a very athletic colt who will do what we ask."
Free Drop Billy has been nothing if not consistent. The Breeders' Cup outing was the only time he's been worse than second in six career starts.
"He loves to train, he loves to run. He just excels on race day, and he gives it all he has," Loutsch said. "Those are the kind you love to have. We just need a little racing luck now."
Mr Amore Stable's homebred Firenze Fire heads into the Gotham off a runner-up finish in the 1 1/8-mile Feb. 3 Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct, but he should be in his comfort zone over Saturday's distance. The son of Poseidon's Warrior is two-for-two at a mile, having won the Champagne Stakes (G1) over Good Magic Oct. 7 and the Jerome Stakes in his seasonal bow Jan. 13. His only loss around one turn came when he ran fourth in the Hopeful.
"He doesn't get much respect sometimes," trainer Jason Servis said. "I don't get it. He ran a mile and an eighth (in the Withers), and it didn't look like he had trouble with it. He kind of made a middle move and just couldn't get to that horse, but it wasn't like he stopped or anything. I think if he's ridden right, he'll get a mile and a quarter. But, he's got to get the points first."
Godolphin Racing's Enticed will aim to get redemption after finishing fourth as the favorite during his seasonal bow in the Holy Bull Stakes. The son of Medgalia d'Oro displayed mettle when he overcame an early bump and surged up three-wide to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs in November over a bunch that included Bravazo and Promises Fulfilled. Such a response was lacking, however, when the dark bay colt got an inside trip in the Holy Bull.
"His last race, he drew the one hole and just had a tight, not a great trip down inside," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said of Enticed. "We were thinking in a one-turn mile there wouldn't be a lot of traffic, you hope. We haven't lost faith in him. And it doesn't hurt seeing those horses come back and run well that were behind us. But he needs to step up, and hopefully we can just throw out his last race."
Aqueduct Racetrack, Saturday, March 10, 2018, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Dial Operator (NJ) Trevor McCarthy 117 Jason Servis 10/1 2 2Cove Blue (KY) Chris Landeros 117 Dale L. Romans 30/1 3 3Beautiful Shot (FL) Angel S. Arroyo 117 J. Keith Desormeaux 8/1 4 4Whereshetoldmetogo (MD) Joseph Rocco, Jr. 119 Anthony Pecoraro 15/1 5 5Firenze Fire (FL) Manuel Franco 123 Jason Servis 5/2 6 6Free Drop Billy (KY) Dylan Davis 123 Dale L. Romans 9/5 7 7Old Time Revival (FL) Steve D. Hamilton 117 Kenneth Decker 15/1 8 8Nine Route (NY) Kendrick Carmouche 117 Jeremiah C. Englehart 30/1 9 9Enticed (KY) Junior Alvarado 121 Kiaran P. McLaughlin 7/2
Aqueduct Racetrack, Saturday, March 10, 2018, Race 10