For so long, the New York road to the Kentucky Derby almost always has been a dead end. The last Gotham Stakes winner to wear the roses was Secretariat in 1973, and in the past 37 years only Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) completed the Wood Memorial-Derby double.
That depressing history didn’t stop Hall of Fame trainers Bob Baffert and Jerry Hollendorfer from sending two promising colts from California to Aqueduct for Saturday’s Grade III Gotham.
Baffert, coming off last spring’s Triple Crown sweep with Justify, was trying to find out what he has in Much Better. Is he a turf horse (one win on grass) or a sprinter (2-for-2 at 6½ furlongs)? Hollendorfer’s Instagrand was 2-for-2 by a total of 20 lengths at 6 furlongs last year, but he hadn’t raced since August.
The West Coast shippers were battling for the lead in midstretch, but neither stayed there. Front-running Much Better weakened after going way too fast (44.42 seconds) for a half-mile under Mike Smith, and it looked as if even-money favorite Instagrand would go on by. Then he tired, too, as Mind Control rallied up the rail and Haikal, ridden by Rajiv Maragh, surged four wide to beat Mind Control by a length. Instagrand was third, half a length farther back and a nose better than Much Better.
Haikal, who paid $10.80, is 3-for-4 lifetime after his third straight win with Maragh, all at The Big A. “All the times I’ve ridden him, he’s finished very strong,” Maragh said. “We were hoping to get him clear sailing on the outside today, and it worked out.”
The winner came from sixth and made up about nine lengths in a very slow final quarter (26.40 seconds), so his 24.60 finish was quite good. So was his mile in 1:35.63. Haikal, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, looks like a closing sprinter, but Maragh is optimistic that the Derby’s 1¼ miles wouldn’t be too far. “He’s given me every indication that the farther we go, the more he’ll like it.”
His pedigree (by Daahar, a son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, and out of a Distorted Humor mare) suggests he might like more distance. He earned 50 Derby qualifying points, so he’s in if that’s the plan. Haikal never has tried two turns, though, and the Derby is only eight weeks away, so it seems unlikely he’ll be there. But neither McLaughlin nor owner Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum has won it, so you never can tell.