Few things could rival Andy Simoff’s last visit to the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack, but the trainer will try to find one Saturday as Howgreatisnate runs in the $300,000 Grade 3 stakes for 3-year-olds. It’ll be Simoff’s first Gotham since watching Secretariat capture the 1973 version on the way to a Triple Crown.
“That’s the last time I was physically there for the Gotham,” Simoff said. “My father had a friend who had a horse in an earlier race. Ron Turcotte was riding the horse. I didn’t know anything about Secretariat. I was 13 years old. What would I know?”
Simoff went to the paddock for the earlier race, “a 15 claimer of something,” and met Turcotte. Simoff’s father, Abram, an engineer, racing fan and small-time owner in New Jersey, asked a simple question.
“What do you think about that big horse today?”
Turcotte didn’t hesitate.
“I love that horse. He’s just a freak of nature.”
In his second start as a 3-year-old, Secretariat won the Gotham (then a Grade 2 in early April) at 1-9. Fifty years later, Simoff can’t recall how his father’s friend’s horse ran but pays the moment at least some credit for a long career in racing as a groom, exercise rider, van driver, horse transportation company owner and trainer.
Based in the Mid-Atlantic – Delaware Park, Fair Hill Training Center the last few winters – the Pennsylvania resident won 20 races last year, a lifetime best 31 the year before that. New Jersey-bred star Alta Velocita won seven races (two stakes) for Simoff in 2021 and 2022. Her co-owner John Guarnere of Imaginary Stable sent the trainer to Keeneland September in 2021 and Simoff came back with Howgreatisnate for $67,000.
“He sent me some babies other guys had bought and we didn’t have any luck,” Simoff said. “I did like Bill Parcells says and told him, ‘If I’m going to cook the dinner, let me buy the groceries.’ ”
Guarnere agreed, and came up with a budget for one horse. Simoff lobbied for more, hoping to spread the budget over several prospects. Shopping from the back ring, he spent $159,000 on four yearlings. Bred by B.D. Gibbs Farm, Howgreatisnate is the only winner so far and joins a field of 14 (with one also-eligible) in the 1-mile Gotham. Aqueduct’s ninth on a 10-race card goes at 4:56 p.m. and shares top billing with the Grade 3 Tom Fool one race earlier. See Equibase entries here.
Undefeated in four starts, Howgreatisnate breaks from post two for J.D. Acosta at 10-1 on the morning line. Brad Cox shipper Eyeing Clover is a tepid 4-1 favorite off a last-out allowance win at Fair Grounds Jan. 28. Cox also trains 5-1 second choice Slip Mahoney, a New York-based Arrogate colt who won a maiden race at the Gotham trip Jan. 21. Lugan Knight and Carmel Road, the latter a recent switch from Bob Baffert’s barn to Tim Yakteen’s, are 6-1 with Mr. Swagger and Uncorrelated sharing 10-1 lines with Howgreatisnate. The Fair Hill-based Recruiter, also 4-for-4, is 12-1 for trainer Cal Lynch off a stakes win at Parx Jan. 3. Like many in the field, Howgreatisnate stretches to a mile for the first time.
The bay gelding won his debut going 5 1/2 furlongs at Delaware Park late last summer, then stuck to 6 furlongs with wins in the restricted First State Dash in September, an allowance Nov. 5 and the Future Stars Stakes at Parx Racing Dec. 5. Looking for a break before a 2023 campaign, Simoff took Howgreatisnate to Fair Hill, and hoped for good weather.
“We turned him out for a month in a little paddock at the barn,” he said. “John was thinking about Florida and I kind of talked him out of it. I was very, very, very nervous all winter because it was my idea to keep him up here. If the weather got bad and we missed some training it was going to be a problem. The weather has been unbelievable, and we haven’t missed a beat.”
Howgreatisnate breezed on the dirt five times in January and February, the latest a 6-furlong move in 1:15 Feb. 25. The son of Speightster galloped 1 1/2 miles Wednesday before shipping to Belmont Park in favor of a short van ride the day of the race as opposed to a long one. Leave it to Simoff to make that call. He owns the Delaware-based Andrew Simoff Horse Transport and can dispatch trucks and trailers pretty much anywhere in the country. The business started with his brother Richard’s International Harvester pick-up, a two-horse trailer, graduated to a three-horse van in 1981 and now includes gooseneck trailers, straight trucks and air-ride tractor trailers.
“My brother had horses at The Meadowlands and I was helping him, getting on horses, rubbing them, whatever,” he said. “We put a sign up in the kitchen, ‘Anybody need a van?’ ”
Trainer Bob Tiller came by the barn and said he had a horse running in New York the next day. Simoff took the gig, drove that International Harvester pick-up and two-horse trailer to Belmont Park and back. Tiller paid Simoff “like $300” and that was that.
“Forget working in the barn, that was real money,” Simoff said. “It was easier than anything else I was doing.”
He spent a year driving for Jack Mount before starting his business and now oversees a red-and-white fleet while running a small stable.
Howgreatisnate impressed Simoff as a “just real well-balanced” yearling and got a boost from half-sister Just A Kiss Away (by Twirling Candy) who had won her only two starts. Simoff wasn’t necessarily looking for Speigtster yearlings, but said he has purchased three – all debut winners.
“The dam was by Tapit, which I liked, and I like Speightster,” Simoff said. “He’s been OK. If he was doing more [as a stallion], instead of $67,000 this horse would have cost 267. I like some stallions, but if you like the mare and what she’s done then you’re probably going to be OK.”
Yearling shopping on a budget requires a different approach – there’s no “Team Simoff” walking the grounds with a short list.
“It’s just me. When you’ve got short money you can’t run around with teams of guys with notebooks,” he said. “I stand in the back ring – I got the book, I got the buyer’s guide. If I see something I like that I can afford I call the repository and get the vet to look at the X-rays real quick and I’ll walk up and bid. You can lay your eyes on 300 horses a day that way.”
Once purchased, Howgreatisnate was Delaware-certified (to be eligible for purse premiums and restricted races), took early lessons at Richard’s farm in Pennsylvania and joined the stable at Delaware Park.
“Ever since he started training, he trained great and he’s run up to his training so far,” Simoff said. “He showed a lot of promise as a baby, he’s done everything right, he’s got a lot of bone and there have been no hiccups. We’ve been really lucky.”
Of course, the water gets deep Saturday. Howgreatisnate, named for Guarnere’s grandson, hasn’t run in three months, adds a quarter-mile in distance, faces his stiffest competition and will probably have to contend with a wet track. Simoff would prefer a fast surface, but knows his horse’s 3-year-old season must start somewhere.
“He’s a little bit up against, he’s got to step up in this field,” Simoff said. “We could have tried to pick off other races but at some point we’ve got to test him. This is our chance. It’s a tougher race than he’s run in, but if he moves forward a little bit he’ll be OK and I think he can move forward.”