Like any successful entrepreneur, Leonard Riggio delves into his pursuits with equal parts passion and planning. For the better part of the past seven years, the founder and chairman of Barnes & Noble has thrown resources and faith toward creating an elite broodmare band while developing the stallion that helped fuel his fire for the Thoroughbred industry.
Horse racing demands patience, and it can be tempting to reach for the white flag when the payoff is slow to come. Saturday's Grade III, $500,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct only reinforces Riggio's tenacity.
A pair of homebreds from Riggio's New York-based My Meadowview Farm, including undefeated Samraat, will vie to lock in a place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate with a victory in the 11⁄16-mile prep race.
Samraat, trained by Rick Violette, and Noble Cornerstone, conditioned by Wesley Ward, will race as a coupled entry that was deemed the 5-2 choice on the morning line. With respect to the latter, such public favoritism is a result of Samraat's unblemished form through his four starts to date — ability that has already established him as Riggio's best Derby prospect yet.
The first horse to bring Riggio to the Derby was Noble Causeway, who finished 14th in 2005 for My Meadowview and is the sire of both Samraat and Noble Cornerstone. Though Riggio and bloodstock manager Lincoln Collins have bought several high-profile mares for seven figures at public auction, he paid a relatively modest $150,000 for Little Indian Girl — dam of Samraat — at the Keeneland November Sale in 2007 specifically to support Noble Causeway at stud.
"It's just the lesson where you never know where the good horses are going to come from although I have to say that Little Indian Girl always looked like a good mare," Collins said this week. "She's already produced a couple of stakes horses. But there is no satisfaction like breeding a good horse and when it's by your own stallion and own mare, it doesn't get much better than that.
"As often happens with these things, it can be awhile before a plan works out. I'm grateful for Len to having the fortitude to stick to it."
Noble Causeway was the first major horse to carry Riggio's colors, but Samraat has his sire beat at this point in on-track achievement.
The dark bay colt's first three starts were front-running clinics that saw him win by a combined 253/4 lengths, including his 163/4-length triumph in the Damon Runyon Stakes at Aqueduct last December.
Samraat further encouraged his connections when he and fellow Gotham entrant Uncle Sigh went stride for stride through the 11⁄16-mile, Grade III Withers on Feb. 1 before Samraat edged away to prevail by a length.
"He broke very sharp but when it was clear Uncle Sigh wanted to go on, he was happy to drop in right behind him and be relaxed and get ready to make his run, which is a huge advantage in a horse," Collins said of the Withers. "If you have natural speed that is tractable, that is a winning combination for a top-class dirt horse. So we learned that he didn't need to get the lead and that he is a fighter."
Violette, who will also saddle Financial Mogul in the Gotham, counts Saturday's test as "an upgrade as far as competition goes" for Samraat. Pending this weekend's results, a final pre-Derby prep in the Grade I Wood Memorial is penciled in.
"You have a horse who is 4-for-4 and you've obviously got to think about the first Saturday in May," Collins said. "Having said that, you have to take it race by race. A lot of horses will progress and go on and some won't. We obviously hope Samraat is one of them but it's a terribly competitive thing.
"But there is no point in being in the game if you don't dream. That's what keeps us all going."