Firenze Fire winning the Jerome Stakes (NYRA/Coglianese Photography/Chelsea Durand

Firenze Fire winning the Jerome Stakes (NYRA/Coglianese Photography/Chelsea Durand

When handicapping Kentucky Derby prep races, it’s usually simple to narrow down the field to a couple of main contenders.

But that isn’t the case in Saturday’s $300,000 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, a race in which nearly half the entrants boast impressive credentials.

Leading the way are the Grade 1 winners #5 Firenze Fire and #6 Free Drop Billy, who also strike me as the most likely winners. The Gotham is held at a one-turn mile, and Firenze Fire has excelled in such races, compiling a 4-for-5 record around one turn. His most noteworthy victory came in last year’s Champagne Stakes (gr. I), in which he defeated the future graded stakes winners Good Magic and Enticed, and he has shown an affinity for Aqueduct this winter by winning the Jerome Stakes (also a one-turn mile) and finishing second in the Withers Stakes (gr. III) going nine furlongs.

I was particularly impressed by Firenze Fire’s Jerome effort, in which he overcame a slow pace to prevail in game fashion over a very tiring track. But Free Drop Billy is no slouch in his own right; he defeated future Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) winner Bravazo by four lengths in the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) last year and recently returned from a winter layoff to finish a strong second in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park, earning a 99 BRIS speed figure that is higher than any of the figures posted by Firenze Fire thus far. I especially liked Free Drop Billy’s strong finish in the Holy Bull, in which he left the third-place finish 7 ¾ lengths behind while earning a 102 BRIS Late Pace rating.

One longer shot to include in the exotics is #3 Beautiful Shot, who ships in from California for trainer Keith Desormeaux. The son of Trappe Shot has already beaten the likes of Nero and Mourinho, two Derby contenders trained by Bob Baffert, and he also ran third behind the talented Greyvitos in a strong renewal on the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) on November 11th.

Beautiful Shot hasn’t run in four months and will be racing beyond seven furlongs for the first time, but when California-based Derby contenders ship east for a major prep race, it’s wise to pay attention. Even if they don’t win, they often outrun their odds—remember the maiden Trojan Nation finishing second in Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial (gr. I) at 81-1? Or the Keith Desormeaux-trained Sonneteer finishing second in Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at 112-1?

I’ll focus on these three in the exacta and trifecta while also adding the unbeaten #1 Dial Operator and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) winner #9 Enticed to the trifecta:

$4 exacta: 5,6 with 3,5,6 ($16)
$1 trifecta: 5,6 with 1,3,5,6,9 with 1,3,5,6,9 ($24)

Good luck!