Derby hopefuls tangle in Big A’s Gotham
By Bob Ehalt
The Road to the Kentucky Derby runs through Aqueduct on Saturday, but it remains to be seen if the $300,000 Gotham Stakes will point out more candidates for the Run for the Roses than the Woody Stephens Stakes.
If you’re wondering, the Woody Stephens is the seven-furlong stakes on Belmont Stakes Day that was recently granted Grade 1 status and is an ideal target for horses who struggle at distances that extend around two turns.
The Kentucky Derby, of course, is a grueling, mile-and-a-quarter stakes that demands a superlative mix of speed and stamina.
What comes into play here is that the Gotham can either propel a horse into the Kentucky Derby picture or it can expose that runner as a sprinter at best.
While the winner of the Gotham will receive 50 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series, which will virtually guarantee that horse of a spot in the Kentucky Derby field, the three top contenders are all seeking their initial win around two turns.
The center of attention promises to be the undefeated Instagrand, who has shipped in from California for his first race since August. Though he’s won his two starts by more than 20 lengths, the even-money morning-line favorite has yet to race beyond six furlongs and the Gotham will give Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer some insight as to the 3-year-old’s ability to stretch out.
“We think we have him prepared (for stretching out in distance),” Hollendorfer said. “We’re very happy to have Javier Castellano riding. I feel like our horse has speed and I think he can also rate if we have to.”
The 9-2 second choice, Mind Control, has more experience than Instagrand and a Grade 1 win to his credit from last year’s Hopeful Stakes. A winner of the Jerome Stakes at a mile in January at Aqueduct in his last start, Mind Control should be quite competitive at Saturday’s one-turn, one-mile distance. Two-turn assignments, like next month’s Wood Memorial and then the Kentucky Derby, are the question marks.
“Our horse is going to have to improve, but we’re expecting an effort like the Jerome,” trainer Greg Sacco said. “He’s going into this race better than he went into the Jerome in terms of maturity and filling out. He’s really starting to put the muscle on in the right places. Everything has gone according to plan. For the most part, he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s filled out, he’s stronger and his works have been well within himself. He couldn’t be doing any better going into the Gotham.”
Considering it’s Triple Crown season, it should be no surprise that two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert has a starter in the field of eight.
Much Better (10-1) has raced around two turns on dirt, finishing third in the Sham Stakes at a mile at Santa Anita. Since that Jan. 5 setback, Much Better ran much better in a 6 ½-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita on Feb. 9, winning by 3 ½ lengths.
With Baffert calling the shots and Mike Smith flying in to ride him, Much Better figures to have a big say in the final outcome.
The rest of the field includes Family Biz (30-1), Knicks Go (12-1), Haikal (6-1), Not That Brady (5-1) and Tikhvin Flew (12-1).