As Irad Ortiz Jr. left the inner track on a stretcher, trainer Chad Brown wondered if he was all right. An hour later, they were in the winner’s circle with an undefeated Kentucky Derby contender. In racing, rarely does anything happen as planned, although this was rather extreme.
Ortiz, after sitting out one race, jumped aboard Shagaf and gave him a brilliant ride. On a track that favored speed all day, Shagaf rallied from third, 2½ lengths behind, in midstretch to wear down front-runner Laoban to take the Grade III, $400,000 Gotham Stakes by 1¼ lengths Saturday at chilly Aqueduct.
“He’s probably the only horse to beat the inside bias all day,’’ Brown said. “He’s a top horse, and everything we thought he was. I’m thrilled. He showed a lot of heart.’’
So did Ortiz, 23, who like Brown had the most winners last year at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. When Ortiz was unseated as his mount stumbled after the wire in the Heavenly Prize Stakes, Brown was edgy.
“I was upset for us all,’’ Brown said. “First and foremost, he’s my friend, and he rides a lot of horses for us. Thank God he was fine. He showed a lot of courage for a young man.’’
Shagaf, the 6-5 favorite, paid $4.50 for his third victory after running 1 1/16 miles in a rather slow 1:45.90. The son of Bernardini trailed by 2 lengths entering the final sixteenth of a mile, which took a sluggish 7.10 seconds. Ortiz admitted he wasn’t certain he could get by 15-1 shot Laoban.
“I never thought I had it,’’ he said. “But he did everything right, and when I gave him his cue, he took off.’’
Most importantly, Shagaf earned 50 points, guaranteeing him a spot in the gate for the May 7 Derby at Churchill Downs. There has been no correlation between success on the first Saturday of March and the first Saturday in May. No Gotham winner has worn the roses since Secretariat in 1973.
Shagaf gave owner-breeder Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum two unbeaten 3-year-olds, joining Mohaymen. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s top-ranked colt is scheduled to risk his 5-for-5 record against last year’s 2-year-old champion, the 6-for-6 Nyquist, April 2 in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. Shagaf will train in New York for the April 9 Wood Memorial.
Rick Nichols, Sheikh Hamdan’s U.S. racing manager, was asked to compare his boss’ duo. “Shagaf is a bigger, stronger horse, and Mohaymen is smaller, well balanced and very efficient,’’ Nichols said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Shagaf beat Mohaymen, or if Mohaymen beat Shagaf, or if they dead-heated.
“Hopefully, we’ll let them play together May 7 and see what happens.’’