Haikal winning the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) - © Adam Coglianese Photography/Chelsea Durand

Haikal winning the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) – © Adam Coglianese Photography/Chelsea Durand

The old phrase “pace makes the race” was demonstrated clearly in the $300,000 Gotham Stakes (gr. III) on March 3 at Aqueduct, won by the late-running Haikal in a driving finish.

Indeed, it’s not a stretch to conclude that the outcome of the race was determined almost solely by the extraordinary pace of the one-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep event. On a day when the track was playing a bit quicker than in the past, but still not overly fast, racing fans and handicappers across the country were surely blinking in disbelief at the posted fractions for the Gotham.

The opening quarter-mile in :22.36, set by the speedy Much Better, was challenging in and of itself. But then Much Better threw down the gauntlet, blazing the second quarter-mile in :22.06 to reach the half-mile pole in :44.42, by far the fastest half-mile fraction in any race (sprint or route) on the card. Not surprisingly, the Gotham fell apart late, though Haikal’s winning time of 1:35.63 was still good enough for a 95 Beyer speed figure.

So what are the main takeaways from the Gotham Stakes? My thoughts are along these lines…

  1. Haikal Received a Dream Trip

You have to give credit to Haikal for stepping up in class and recording his third straight victory; the son of Daaher clearly has talent and is an interesting newcomer to the Derby scene. But he also received a picture-perfect setup in the Gotham, rallying up the rail on the turn before steering outside and running down the leg-weary leaders. Indeed, the leaders were seemingly staggering down the homestretch, running the final quarter-mile in :26.40, which allowed Haikal to make up nearly five lengths in the final furlong and win going away.

Runner-up Mind Control also benefited from a good trip. The typically front-running colt chose the perfect day to employ rating tactics and rallied from sixth place to finish second, a half-length in front of even-money favorite Instagrand.

  1. Instagrand Ran Well Off the Layoff

Running for the first time since August and making his first start beyond six furlongs, Instagrand ran a big race in defeat. He raced significantly closer to the early pace than Haikal or Mind Control, and while he weakened in the final furlong after reaching even terms with Much Better, he was only beaten 1 ½ lengths and should improve off this run. Whether he’ll improve enough to remain a serious contender for the Kentucky Derby is still unknown.

  1. Much Better Could Be a Very Good Sprinter

I don’t think any pace handicappers will dispute that Much Better ran the best race on the day, even though he finished a nose behind Instagrand in fourth place. Shipping in from California for trainer Bob Baffert, Much Better looked great through the first six furlongs (running the distance in 1:09.23) and refused to give up down the homestretch, battling on to finish 1 1/2 lengths behind Haikal. This was rather remarkable considering that two of his closest pursuers through the opening half-mile, the stakes winners Knicks Go and Not That Brady, were essentially eased to finish more than fifty lengths behind.

Much Better is now 0-for-4 going long and 2-for-2 sprinting, so given the speed that he displayed in the Gotham, I suspect he could be a wickedly good sprinter at distances up to seven furlongs. Races like the Woody Stephens Stakes (gr. I) and H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (gr. I) could be major targets for him this year.