Instagrand winning the Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar - © BENOIT PHOTO

Instagrand winning the Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar – © BENOIT PHOTO

There is an abundance of early speed entered in Saturday’s $300,000 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct, so it’s hard not to envision the one-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race unfolding at a rapid pace.

For example, #6 Instagrand led gate-to-wire in his two impressive victories last year. #7 Not That Brady has set the pace in his last four starts. #3 Mind Control parlayed front-running trips into victories in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) and Jerome Stakes, while #4 Much Better was a pace-setting winner of an allowance sprint at Santa Anita last month. And don’t forget #2 Knicks Go, gate-to-wire winner of the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I), and #8 Tikhvin Flew, who has pressed quick fractions in his two career starts.

Perhaps one of these young runners can out-duel the others and go on to victory. Many bettors will be backing Instagrand, who looked like a star in the making while dominating his rivals in a Los Alamitos maiden race and Del Mar’s Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) last summer. But he’s never run farther than six furlongs, hasn’t run at all since August, is shipping across the country from California to New York, and is the overwhelming even-money favorite on the morning line.

I obviously have a lot of respect for Instagrand’s abilities; he made a great impression last year, to the extent that I have him ranked third in my Kentucky Derby Top 10. But I don’t think he’s a shoo-in to beat this field off the layoff, so I’m tempted to play against him with #5 Haikal.

Granted, Haikal has never run in a route race either, but he rallied with determination to prevail in the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct last month, so he’s familiar with this track and has the advantage of a recent run. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, this son of Daaher has repeatedly shown the ability to produce a big finish from off the pace, earning BRIS Late Pace ratings of 102, 102, and 99 in his three starts to date. The one-turn mile of the Gotham should play to Haikal’s strengths, and if a fast pace unfolds as I expect, he can be the one to capitalize in the homestretch.

Since Haikal should be a fair price in the wagering, I’ll bet him to win and play him in the exotics with Instagrand and Much Better:

$10 to win on #5 Haikal
$8 exacta: 6 with 5 ($8)
$4 exacta: 5 with 6 ($4)
$2 trifecta: 5,6 with 4,5,6 with 4,5,6 ($8)

Good luck!