(War Stopper / Photo Courtesy of NYRA)

From the NYRA Media Team:

Rudy Rodriguez, who sits second in the Aqueduct winter meet trainer standings with 25 wins, will saddle maiden winner War Stopper in Saturday’s G3, $300,000 Gotham which offers 50-20-10-5 Kentucky Derby qualifying points.

The Gotham, a one-turn mile, is one of four stakes slated for a bumper card at the Big A, which also features the Grade 3, $200,000 Tom Fool Handicap; the $250,000 Busher Invitational and the $125,000 Stymie.

Salerno Stables’ War Stopper, a chestnut son of Declaration of War, graduated at fourth asking by four lengths in a one-turn mile on January 11 at Aqueduct. A $75,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale graduate, War Stopper was off-the-board in his first two starts, both on turf, before a promising effort under Joel Rosario on dirt when fifth in a Big A maiden tilt on December 7.

“We tried him a couple times on the grass and we were disappointed with how he ran,” said Rodriguez. “When we ran him on dirt the first time, he broke a step slow and had a lot of kickback. Rosario came back and said the dirt was hitting him in the face and he was uncomfortable. So, he moved him out wide and he started running and finished good. He was eight or nine wide, but he finished fifth. It was a good race. It didn’t look good on paper, but to me, it looked good.”

Last out, with blinkers on for the first time, War Stopper broke alertly under Jorge Vargas, Jr. and made all the running in a sharp effort that garnered a 93 Beyer Speed Figure.

“He broke good with the blinkers and that made the difference,” said Rodriguez. “Hopefully, he can improve a little bit. He’ll have to improve with 12 or 13 horses in the race. He’s coming into the race good, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

War Stopper worked a half-mile in 49.96 seconds on February 25 on the Belmont Park dirt training track.

“It was nice and smooth. It was just a maintenance breeze,” said Rodriguez. “He went a half-mile and galloped out three-eighths. He did it the right way, nice and comfortable. I may breeze him again on Wednesday but we’ll see how it goes. He’s done all the heavy duty work.”

Rodriguez, who saddled 2013 Gotham winner Vyjack, said Vargas, Jr. will retain the mount on the Kentucky-bred War Stopper.

“He’s riding well and is aggressive. He listens and he really likes this horse,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez will also send out Water White in the Busher offering 50-20-10-5 Kentucky Oaks qualifying points. Owned by E.V. Racing Stable and bred in Kentucky by Richard Forbush, the Conveyance gray is ranked 24th on the leaderboard with four points after finishing second last out in the Busanda on February 2 at the Big A.

A winner at third asking in a one-turn mile on November 15 at Aqueduct, Water White stretched out to nine furlongs when fifth in the Grade 2 Demoiselle in December. Last out, again at nine furlongs, Water White rallied five-wide down the lane to complete the exacta 7 1/2-lengths back of Harvey’s Lil Goil.

Rodriguez said Vargas Jr. will retain the mount as Water White turns back to the distance of her maiden score.

“No changes,” said Rodriguez. “Maybe the cutback to a mile will help us a little bit. She ran a big race her first time going a mile.”

On Saturday, Water White will have to contend with the well-regarded Godolphin homebred Lake Avenue, a four-length winner of the Grade 2 Demoiselle for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Rodriguez said he is cautiously optimistic his hard-trying filly is up for the challenge.

“She’s training very good,” said Rodriguez, who saddled Condo Commando to a victory in the 2015 Busher. “I know the Bill Mott horse is a tough one to beat, but she tries hard and is very competitive.”

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Celtic Striker sitting on go for G3 Gotham

Trainer Ray Handal has a sharp horse in Celtic Striker for Saturday’s Grade 3 Gotham.

Owned by Imperial Racing, the sophomore son of Congrats will return to a one-turn mile after shipping to Parx Racing to beat winners in a mile-and-70-yard first level allowance following a fourth in the Jerome on New Year’s Day, where he earned one point towards the Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby.

In his last out two-turn debut, Celtic Striker broke alertly, set leisurely fractions on the front end and repelled a stretch challenge from heavy favorite Irish Cork to win by 1 ½ lengths.

“He was coming off a bit of a layoff in the Jerome. I thought I had him pretty sharp in there, but he came back pretty tired,” Handal said. “He won the two turn race after which was by design. I wanted to go in a spot where I knew he could win so we went out of town for the allowance race. The plan was to come back to the Gotham for a cut back, making sure we put a tight, stiff one into him. Coming back in four weeks and on the cut back, he should be well sharp and ready to go.”

Handal said if the field came up too tough, he could alter course and point for the Grade 3, $250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks on March 14 at Turfway Park. As of now, all systems are go for the Gotham.

“Right now, the plan is to march forward, get to the Gotham and see what we have,” Handal said. “He’s a horse that’s shown some talent in the morning in his workouts. I put blinkers on last race because I felt that he wasn’t giving me everything he had. His numbers jumped up a ton in that allowance race. His first time wearing blinkers definitely changed his game so we’ll see where we stand with him.”

Purchased for $100,000 from the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale by Oracle Bloodstock, Handal said Celtic Striker displayed a strong physical demeanor, which made him very appealing.

“He was just such an athlete,” he said. “We bought him at the [Keeneland] September Sale as a yearling and he had the perfect hind end. His whole conformation down that back leg was beautiful from the gaskin down to the hock. Everything was perfect. Physically, he’s as good as you can get a horse to look.”

With only four starts under his belt, Handal said it’s still a bit unclear what the ideal distance for Celtic Striker could be.

“Looking at him, it looks like a one-turn mile is what he wants to do, but in his last race he just kept finding more,” Handal said. “He kept on grinding and that was a legit field that day. The horse that ran second [Irish Cork] had just broke his maiden by 10 and ran second to [Grade 3 Withers winner] Max Player in the previous race. He doesn’t show signs of fatigue from that race, he came back like it was nothing.”

Bred in Kentucky by Stoneview Farm Inc. & Craig D. Upham, Celtic Striker is out of the Star Dabbler broodmare Shylock’s Daughter.