NEW YORK >> Time for a stop in New York on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
The track is Aqueduct, the race is Saturday's $400,000 Gotham, and there are valuable Derby qualifying points on the line.
At least for most of the 3-year-olds entered.
Withers winner Sunny Ridge is the 7-2 second betting choice in the Derby prep, but both owner and trainer are favoring a plan that skips the Derby in favor of a Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Haskell Invitational campaign.
For now, anyway.
"Everyone wants to know what's next," owner Dennis Drazin said of his 3-year-old New Jersey-bred gelding, "but first he's got to run on Saturday."
And then there's Conquest Big E, a disappointing fourth in the Holy Bull on Jan. 30, who "deserves another shot at a Triple Crown prep," assistant trainer Norm Casse said.
A field of eight was entered for the 1 1/16-mile steppingstone to the Wood Memorial on April 9 at the Big A, New York's final prep before the Derby on May 7.
Shagaf, making his stakes debut after two wins, is the 3-1 favorite.
From the rail out, the lineup is Laoban (15-1), Shagaf, Adventist (4-1), Vincento (20-1), Mo Power (6-1), Conquest Big E (6-1), Sunny Ridge and Rally Cry (5-1).
A winner in three of six career starts, Sunny Ridge is trained by Jason Servis and will be ridden by Manny Franco.
A total of 85 Derby qualifying points are up for grabs: 50 for first, 20 for second, 10 for third, five for fourth. Sunny Ridge is eighth in Derby points with 18.
Drazin, a lawyer, has owned and bred horses for more than 30 years. He's also worked with New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and as a consultant for Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey.
Perhaps even more than the Derby, Drazin would like to win the Haskell, Monmouth's showcase race he helped build into one of state's top sports events. Last year, a record crowd showed up to see American Pharoah win the race in his first start after winning the Triple Crown.
"The Haskell is a race of importance to me," Drazin said. "So, the game plan right now is skip the Derby, run in the Preakness and Belmont, give him a break, and then run in the Haskell."
Plus, Drazin says because Sunny Ridge is a gelding and breeding is not a consideration, there's a better chance for a longer racing career.
"He could be a horse who runs until he's 8 or 9, so you want to make sure you don't press him," Drazin said.
Derby fever can strike at any time, however. Especially in the winner's circle of a prep race two months before the Run for the Roses. It would be the first Derby for Drazin and Servis — Servis' brother, John, trained 2004 Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones. Franco finished 17th aboard Tencendur last year in his first Derby.
"Nyquist and Mohaymen look very formidable," Dazin said of the two current Derby favorites, "and anything can happen in the Derby. It's 20 horses and the best horse doesn't always win.
"Jason feels the horse will tell us what he's capable of."
Shagaf is trained by Chad Brown and has the same owners as Mohaymen — Sheik Hamdan's Shadwell Stable. The colt shipped in from Florida. Irad Ortiz Jr. is the rider.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has two horses in the Gotham, Rally Cry and Mo Power.
In another noteworthy race Saturday, Keen Ice, who upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers last summer, runs in Dubai, going against 11 challengers in the $400,000 Al Maktoum Challenge at Meydan Racecourse. Since the win, the Dale Romans-trained colt is 0 for 3, running sixth in the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 6 in his 4-year-old debut. Ryan Moore will be aboard.