Commentary

Don't discount Big A winter warriors

Aqueduct may not be in the spotlight but it may boast some Derby horses

Updated: March 1, 2014, 12:36 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Poor Aqueduct. Poor Gotham Stakes.

The Big A has taken a beating in the press of late, with some New York tabloid writers making the point over and over and over and over again that it's not necessarily, well, a palace. Then we read elsewhere that Aqueduct's biggest race on the calendar in March, the $500,000 Gotham is a race whose "glory days are long gone." Oh, and it's going to be 15 degrees Saturday night in Queens or about 60 degrees colder than it will be at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, where proper Derby horses run in the sunshine at a racetrack that isn't falling apart at the seams.

So the weather stinks, the track is a dump and some say the Gotham hasn't produced a notable horse since the 1820's. Be that as it may, dismiss this race and the horses that winter in New York at your own risk.

Back when it was run later on the calendar, in warmer weather and on the main track at Aqueduct, the Gotham was won not only by Secretariat but Native Dancer, Dr. Fager and Easy Goer. In 2006, the Gotham was moved into March on the inner or winter track at Aqueduct and there went its reputation. Blue-collar horses run on the inner track. So do slow horses, cheap horses and horses that have nowhere else to race until Finger Lakes opens. At least that's the conventional wisdom.

So any horse that shows up at such a place, on such a track on a day where only a penguin would enjoy the conditions can't possibly be a legitimate contender for the Classics? Not so fast.

Smarty Jones was the King of Ozone Park, Queens long before he was the King of Louisville, Kentucky.

The 2009 Gotham winner, I Want Revenge, was going to be the favorite in the Derby but was scratched the morning of the race with an injury. Stay Thirsty won the Gotham in 2011 and while he was up the track in the Derby he came back to win the Jim Dandy and the Travers that same year and the Cigar Mile as a 4-year-old.

Even better horses have made a name for themselves on the inner track in the dead of winter at the Big A.

Prairie Bayou owned January and February back in 1993, winning the Count Fleet and the Whirlaway on his way to a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and a Preakness win.

Smarty Jones was the King of Ozone Park, Queens long before he was the King of Louisville, Kentucky. He burst on the scene Jan 3, 2004 with a five-length win in the Count Fleet. Alpha won the Count Fleet in 2012 and went on to win the Jim Dandy and the Travers. With Hollywood Herbie McCauley aboard, Thunder Rumble also pulled off the Count Fleet-Travers double.

Looking for the next Kentucky Oaks winner? Princess of Sylmar warmed up for her 2013 Oaks win with victories in the Big A's Busanda in January and then the Busher in February. It's Tricky, the 2008 Busher winner, didn't run in the Kentucky Oaks but went on to win three Grade 1 races, the Acorn, the Coaching Club and the Ogden Phipps.

This year's Gotham field is typical of what you can expect from New York winter horses. They're not sexy, they're not coveted by Sheikh Mohammed, they're not No. 1 on anyone's Derby Top 10 list, but they can run.

New York-bred Samraat heads the field. Trained by Richard Violette Jr., he's 4 for 4 and is coming off a win in the Withers over fellow New York-bred, fellow winter warrior Uncle Sigh. In Trouble may be in trouble because he hasn't run since September and has never gone beyond six furlongs, but he won the Belmont Futurity and is in the very capable hands of trainer Tony Dutrow. Extrasexyhippzster has won two straight, including a win over the Big A winter track in the Don Rickles, a major prep for the Henny Youngman.

It's going to be cold at Aqueduct Saturday and there are more charming places to be in New York at this time of year, like the Port Authority bus terminal or any bowling alley in the Bronx. But can a Derby winner come out of Aqueduct on a cold day in early March? Absolutely.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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