Shagaf could be the most overrated racehorse in America. Or he could be a leading Triple Crown contender. At this point, it’s rather tricky to say which he is, although, of course, he could be neither but rather something very much in between those two extremes.

The confusion arises from Saturday’s Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, where Shagaf won over a surface that was as kind to inside speed as the crocodile is to the Egyptian plover bird that’s allowed to stroll nonchalantly and safely into the vicious carnivore’s gaping mouth for the purpose of picking food from between its large teeth. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) At Aqueduct on Saturday, horses strolled and swanned and scurried to the rail and then picked out the winner’s share of the purse. The speed bias was so strong that eight of the 10 winners led throughout. Of the two that didn’t, Bensational was only a head back after the opening half-mile, and then there was Shagaf.

He raced two lengths back after the opening half-mile, but on the rail, which was clearly the better part of the surface, and just behind the long shot  Laoban, whom Aaron Gryder hustled to a daylight lead from the inside post position. Gryder had used the same tactics earlier to win with a 52-1 long shot, Heady Creek. Anyway, Shagaf had a nearly perfect trip on the better part of the surface waiting for a long shot to toss in the towel. Yes, you can take the Gertrude Stein approach and insist that a win is a win is a win. Shagaf, after all, took dirt and tracked the leader, and when called upon he came off the rail to deliver the winning — well, it was more of a tap than a punch, for they ran the final sixteenth of a mile in 7.10 seconds. Or you can analyze the race coldly and disinterestedly and conclude that Shagaf was probably fortunate to win and that the race itself probably won’t prove to be very productive in terms of the Triple Crown.

To place the Gotham in perspective, Shagaf ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.90. A couple races earlier, over the same biased surface, Mei Ling, who’s certainly a nice mare but has never been mistaken for Ruffian, led virtually throughout to win the Heavenly Prize Stakes, running the 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.07, or about four lengths faster than Shagaf. As for Laoban, if he couldn’t win with a clear lead while saving ground on that surface, he’ll never win any significant stakes race anywhere. Adventist, who finished third, two lengths back, ran about two lengths farther than the winner and raced a little greenly down the lane. And Sunny Ridge, who finished fourth, raced about three-wide throughout and so had little chance. Adventist and Sunny Ridge, in other words, had reasonable excuses and could improve off their performances. And so Shagaf and Adventist remain in the Top 20 on the Road to the Triple Crown, but with contrails of question marks.

The next day at Aqueduct, Matt King Coal returned to competition, making his first start of the year. He had been expected for the Gotham, which he might have won, but opted instead for what figured to be an easier spot. It’s important to note that Sunday’s surface was somewhat faster and much fairer than Saturday’s, which was deep and slow. On Sunday, three of nine winners led throughout, and one horse, Repent Twice, even rallied from last to win, something that would have been impossible a day earlier.

Matt King Coal opened up a clear lead in solid fractions, 47.46 seconds for the opening half-mile and 1:11.97 for three-quarters, was more than four lengths in front in mid-stretch and held on to win by a length over My Man Sam, who rallied from far back and could, like the winner, return in the Wood Memorial. Matt King Coal completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.92. It’s also important to note that although My Man Sam had the momentum, he didn’t catch the winner in the gallop-out. Matt King Coal went out strongly, and with that he gallops out ahead of Shagaf in this week’s Top 20.

The top 20 on the road to the Triple Crown:

 

  1. Mor Spirit

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Sire: Eskendereya

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—3-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 24

Comment: Mor Spirit, who won the Bob Lewis Stakes with a powerful rally in his seasonal debut, looks like he’s ready to step forward in the San Felipe at Santa Anita. He worked three-quarters of a mile Saturday in 1:12.20, leaving the pole about a length behind and finishing about a length in front of Dream Team, a 4-year-old who has earned $50,100 in his career. Ridden regularly by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, Mor Spirit is a long-striding, relentless colt who could continue to improve as the distances stretch out.

 

  1. Nyquist

Trainer: Doug O’Neill

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—6-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 30

Comment: The champion juvenile of 2015 returned to competition with an impressive victory in the San Vicente. His record’s spotless and his talent unimpeachable; but his ability to excel at the classic distance remains a huge question, even larger for him than for most since his dam’s only victories were sprinting. Nyquist, by the way, has a 7.00 dosage index.

Nyquist worked a half-mile Thursday at Santa Anita in 48.80 seconds. He’ll soon travel to Gulfstream Park in pursuit of a million-dollar bonus and the prestigious the Florida Derby. With jockey Mario Guiterrez, this is the same team that won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another.

 

  1. Mohaymen

Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin

Sire: Tapit

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—5-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 70

Comment: Mohaymen is a $2.3 million yearling purchase, and he looks like he’s worth every cent. This is the horse most breeders would love to see win the Derby since a victory would go far in justifying those seven-figure yearling purchases. Mohaymen won the Fountain of Youth with a another professional performance, beating Zulu by more than two lengths. Still, Mohaymen has yet to turn in a truly fast effort or run in a large field, and the quality of the horses finishing behind him is uncertain. But he’s a relatively late foal, born on May 2, and should continue to improve. Junior Alvarado has ridden Mohaymen in all five of his races.

 

  1. Danzing Candy

Trainer: Clifford Sise

Sire: Twirling Candy

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—2-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 0

Comment: He worked five-eighths Saturday in 1:01 at Santa Anita in preparation for his stakes debut, in the San Felipe. This colt is largely untested. Could he be talented enough to defeat Mor Spirit? If circumstances go his way, maybe. Danzing Candy just cruised in his most recent victory, winning by nearly six lengths without feeling Mike Smith’s whip. So there’s plenty of talent here. A bigger question, though, will come later, as it will for most of these horses, when they stretch out to nine furlongs and then 10.

 

  1. Exaggerator

Trainer: Keith Desormeaux

Sire: Curlin

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 7—3-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 16

Comment: He also worked Saturday at Santa Anita, five-eighths in 1:00.40. He, of course, has spent much of his career chasing Nyquist, finishing behind him twice, but Exaggerator could catch the champion soon; or at least his pedigree is encouraging in that it suggests he’ll improve with distance. First up, though, comes a confrontation with Mor Spirit in the San Felipe. Kent Desormeaux, who rides for his brother, always has liked this colt, chosing to ride him over Swipe in the Breeders’ Cup.

 

  1. Brody’s Cause

Trainer: Dale Romans

Sire: Giant’s Causeway

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—2-0-1

Kentucky Derby points: 14

Comment: He got a feel for the Tampa Bay surface Sunday, working a half-mile in 48.40 seconds. He had been training at Gulfstream Park for his return in Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby. Brody’s Cause, of course, rallied to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he actually had a much better trip than the winner. He’s a hard-trying reliable sort with considerable talent, but his style could compromise his chances in Kentucky. He does most of his serious running in the stretch, and that approach seldom succeeds in the Derby, where the winning move usually takes place in the second turn. Corey Lanerie, who has won four consecutive riding titles at Churchill Downs, could have a very “live” mount for the Derby.  He rides Brody’s Cause, as well as two more in the top 20.

 

  1. Greenpointcrusader

Trainer: Dominick Schettino

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—2-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 14

Comment: He worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:02.95 at Palm Meadows in preparation for his return, which he’ll probably make in either the Louisiana Derby or Wood Memorial. Most notable on his resume is his come-from-behind victory last year in the Champagne. He hasn’t raced since finishing second in the Holy Bull, where he found himself in an unfamiliar position, on the early lead; but he ran well for jockey John Velazquez to finish second.  A full brother to Algorithms, Greenpointcrusader has the potential to put himself among the division’s leaders. But he might need some time and patient handling. He’s a very late foal (May 14), and so he’ll actually still be, according to the calendar, a 2-year-old on Derby Day.

 

  1. Destin

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Giant’s Causeway

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 1

Comment: He recently worked an easy half-mile in 48.99 at Palm Beach Downs in preparation for Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby. Destin appears to be moving in the right direction: He improved in the LeComte when blinkers were added and took a big step forward when he won the Sam F. Davis after another equipment adjustment and with Velazquez riding for the first time.

 

  1. Suddenbreakingnews

Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel

Sire: Mineshaft

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—3-3-0

Kentucky Derby points: 10

Comment: If Suddenbreakingnews lines up in the gate at Churchill Downs for the Derby, that’ll mean he’s a contender. That’s the ony way his trainer, Donnie Von Hemel, who’s one of the region’s best and most popular horsemen, would want to participate. The colt worked a solid five-eighths in 1:00.60 Saturday at Oaklawn Park in preparation for the Rebel on March 19, which will be both a test and a challenge for him: a test because Suddenbreakingnews will face the best horses of his career and a challenge because a swollen field, with its cocomitant traffic, can always be problematic for such a late-runner. But Suddenbreakingnews might be the one to beat. He has lost two races by a neck after troubled trips and another by disqualification; so he’s very close to having a perfect record. He has a solid punch down the lane and is admirably consistent. Luis Quinonez has ridden the gelding in all his races.

 

  1. Gun Runner

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Sire: Candy Ride

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 51

Comment: Gun Runner made an auspicious seasonal debut when he won the Fair Grounds’ Risen Star Stakes. Yes, he enjoyed a perfect trip and ride from Flroent Geroux, but Gun Runner can reasonably be expected to progress. His only loss last year came in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, which is starting to look like one of the strongest 2YO races of 2015. He worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.20 Monday in New Orleans in preparation for the Louisiana Derby on March 26.

 

  1. Zulu

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—2-1-0

Kentucky Derby points: 20

Comment: The Fountain of Youth was only his third start, his first around two turns, and with his runner-up finish he ran well enough to argue that he belongs in the vanguard on the road to Kentucky. He should improve significantly over the next few months. But will he improve enough to threaten in the Florida Derby? His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has not ruled out any options. Velazquez has ridden the colt in all his races and, like Lanerie, has three mounts in the top 20.

 

  1. Mo Tom

Trainer: Tom Amoss

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—3-0-3

Kentucky Derby points: 22

Comment: Although he finished third in the Risen Star, Mo Tom had a rough trip, having to alter course in the stretch, and then he galloped out beyond the winner. His style will always leave him vulnerable, of course, because he’s so dependent on the pace and the trip, but if the circumstances align in his favor he could be hard to beat in the Louisiana Derby. He worked an energetic half-mile Saturday in 47.80 seconds. Lanerie has ridden Mo Tom in five of his six races.

 

  1. Smokey Image

Trainer: Carla Gaines

Sire: Southern Image

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—6-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 0

Comment: How good is this Cal-bred? Is he good enough to compete with the best of his generation? Is he the next California Chrome? Those are the questions. With Victor Espinoza riding, Smokey Image dominated in the Cal Cup Derby, winning by more than eight lengths while in hand. He never has run a head-turning fast race. But the handsome chestnut looks capable of taking a big step forward when he moves into open company in the San Felipe. He worked five-eighths Saturday in 59.60 seconds.

 

  1. Cherry Wine

Trainer: Dale Romans

Sire: Paddy O’Prado

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—2-1-1

Kentucky Derby points: 0

Comment: He skipped the Fountain of Youth because of a fever and a cough, but he should still be able to put in two preparatory races before the Derby, starting with the Rebel. Cherry Wine has won two of his three races on the main track, with a January win at Gulfstream announcing his Triple Crown potential. He rallied from last, circled the field and drew clear by six lengths. He’s one of the more intriguing candidates. He worked a half-mile in 47.60 seconds Saturday in Florida. Lanerie is unbeaten on him in two races.

 

  1. Flexibility

Trainer: Chad Brown

Sire: Bluegrass Cat

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 5—2-2-0

Kentucky Derby points: 15

Comment: He won the Jerome with a powerful effort, but then he disappointed as the odds-on favorite in the Withers, where a slow pace could have compromised his chances. But after he worked a half-mile Sunday in New York, his trainer, Chad Brown, said the colt is doing well and would soon be back on the road to the Triple Crown, with the Wood and Blue Grass mentioned as possibilities. And so Flexibility returns to the Top 20, and if he returns to top form in his next outing, he could be poised to take a big step forward when it most counts. Irad Ortiz, Jr., has ridden the colt in his last three races.

 

 

  1. Matt King Coal

Trainer: Linda Rice

Sire: Cool Coal Man

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 4—2-1-1

Kentucky Derby points: 0

Comment: He returned to competition on the Sunday following the Gotham with an impressive win. Making his first start in more than four months, he got a little weary in the final furlong, but he held on well and actually galloped out strongly. A big strong colt who’s naturally fast and seems to possess a high cruising rhythm, he’s a player. J. L. Ortiz has ridden Matt King Coal in all his races.

 

  1. Shagaf

Trainer: Chad Brown

Sire: Bernardini

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—3-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 50

Comment: What to make of his performance in the Gotham? He won in professional fashion, but the race was, well, slow. Clearly he’s talented and tractable, but he still has much to prove. Irad Ortiz, Jr., has ridden Shagaf in all of the colt’s races, which means he could soon have to make a tough choice.

 

  1. Adventist

Trainer: Leah Gyarmati

Sire: Any Given Saturday

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 3—1-0-2

Kentucky Derby points: 12

Comment: He gave a solid effort in the Gotham while not enjoying the perfect trip of the winner, but he still showed his inexperience down the lane, ducking in slightly from a right-handed whip. Significant improvement is possible for the colt, but it will happen in the Wood or farther down the road. Kendrick Carmouche has been riding him.

 

  1. Outwork

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 2—2-0-0

Kentucky Derby points: 0

Comment: He worked five-eighths Saturday at Gulfstream in preparation for his stakes debut in Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby. Still under the radar, this colt has considerable ability and could jump into the vanguard with a big effort in Tampa. A debut winner at Keeneland in April, Outwork won his seasonal debut last month in handy fashion. Velazquez has ridden the colt in both starts, but, of course, he also rode Destin in the Sam Davis; so it’ll be interesting, and possibly telling, to see which way he goes Saturday.

 

  1. Forevamo

Trainer: Al Stall, Jr.

Sire: Uncle Mo

Starts—wins-2nds-3rds: 6—1-3-0

Kentucky Derby points: 9

Comment: A long-striding colt who looks like he can handle more distance despite a pedigree that emphasizes speed, Forevamo didn’t have the best of trips when he closed well to be second, a half-length back, in the Risen Star Stakes. He then galloped out beyond the winner. Forevamo’s moving in the right direction and could be dangerous in the Louisiana Derby. Colby Hernandez has ridden the colt in his last four outings.