A month after dueling all the way around Aqueduct's inner track in the Withers Stakes, Samraat and Uncle Sigh were at it again Saturday in the Grade III, $500,000 Gotham. The New York-bred 3-year-olds battled head and head through the stretch, accompanied by pacesetter In Trouble on the inside. The drama was just as compelling, and the result was the same.
Samraat improved to 5-for-5 by edging Uncle Sigh by a neck, with In Trouble a neck farther back. After the 2-1 favorite, on the outside, held on under Jose Ortiz, the stewards posted the inquiry sign to look at the stretch run before making it official.
"We knew he had a shot to be a real horse after the Withers," trainer Rick Violette said. "He proved he is a real horse today. This was a good, deep field, and he graduated big time."
For Tawnia MacKenzie, who foaled Samraat at My Meadowview Farm in Water Mill, the thrill was overpowering. "He was born right into my arms," she said. When asked if it was like watching her child win, she said: "Even more. He's our Hamptons boy, and such a fighter. We're on the Derby trail."
Samraat ran 11/16 miles in 1:44.44, paid $6.40 and earned $300,000, raising his total to $583,200 for Leonard and Louise Riggio and their daughter Stephanie. "We thought he might need a little more time after the Withers," Leonard Riggio said, "but he bounced back quickly. He's given us such pleasure. He has such talent and such a big heart. That was some race."
Like Violette, Riggio, founder and chairman of the Barnes & Noble bookstore chain, has experienced the Derby frenzy once. Violette finished seventh with Read the Footnotes in 2004, and Riggio's Noble Causeway, Samraat's sire, ran 14th in 2005.
Uncle Sigh completed an all-Long Island exacta for trainer Gary Contessa, a Merrick native and a member of Calhoun High's sports hall of fame. Uncle Sigh lost to Samraat by a length in the Withers, and in Saturday's final furlong, he cut Samraat's lead from a half-length to a neck.
"My horse raced outstanding," Contessa said. "Samraat is a nice horse. We closed the gap on him and I'm very pleased. He's strong and getting better. Now I'm a believer. God willing, and if the horse is sound, we'll come back in the Wood."
Violette also called the Wood on April 5 at The Big A "a real possibility." Saturday's win was worth 50 points in the Derby qualifying standings and all but assured Samraat of a place in the gate.
"His last race was terrific, and this was a notch above that," Violette said. "I'd be lying if I said we weren't already thinking about the Derby."
Notes & quotes: Leading rider Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Grade III, 6-furlong Tom Fool Handicap on Strapping Groom ($4.30) and the Grade II, 11/16-mile Top Flight Handicap with Teen Pauline ($2.70) . . . The 6-year-old gelding Sound of Drums was euthanized after fracturing his left front sesamoid in the seventh race.