By Dick Downey
Haikal, who was 14 lengths off a hot pace after the first half-mile of the Gotham Stakes, roared down the Aqueduct stretch to win going away with a heady ride by Rajiv Maragh.
Much Better and Knicks Go contended for the early lead with the first quarter-mile going in 22.36. In the blink of an eye, Much Better and Mike Smith sped ahead of that foe and got the half in a crazy-fast 44.42. Meanwhile, Haikal was seventh of the eight runners. Mind Control, ridden by John Velazquez, was six lengths back in sixth, and Instagrand was 4 1/2 lengths back in third under Javier Castellano.
Coming out of the turn, Much Better still led after six furlongs in 1:09.23, but his margin was about to shrink. Into the stretch, Mind Control came up the rail and Instagrand came on the outside, converging around Much Better. Those three were heads apart at the furlong marker and traded punches all the way to the wire, but it was Haikal who finished first, timed in 1:35.63 for the one-turn mile.
The winning margin was one length. Mind Control was second and edged Instagrand by a half-length, and in turn Instagrand edged a stubborn Much Better by a nose. They were followed across the finish line by Family Biz, who was beaten 5 3/4 lengths, Tikhvin Flew, Knicks Go and Not That Brady. The latter two were beaten 51 and 74 3/4 lengths, respectively.
The winner is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and owned by Shadwell Stable. They are the recipients 50 Kentucky Derby points, with 20 going to Mind Control, 10 to Instagrand and 5 to Much Better. Mind Control had 10 points going in for winning the Jerome Stakes, so he has 30 total points now, maybe enough to make the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Much Better upped his total to 7. The others reaped their first Derby points in the Gotham.
Sent off at 4-1 odds after taking some late money, Haikal rewarded his $2 backers $10.80 to win, $4.90 to place and $2.90 to show.
To read more about Haikal, click here to see his Profile at The Downey Profile.
Joe Lee, assistant to winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin: "Kiaran had spoken to Rajiv and that was actually the plan: let him settle early, and then make that run. Rajiv rode him perfectly. When I saw him closing, I was just hoping he'd get there. I knew he was going to come, it was just a matter of if he was going to get there in time. Even at the eighth-pole, sixteenth-pole, I knew from the way he ran last time that he was still going to fight it out. Rajiv said he didn't get tired the last time he ran, so I thought with a nice trip, he'd make a run but that was great. Obviously, he's going the right way and he's the kind of horse that does relax early and doesn't have to be up in front to get caught in any speed duels or anything like that. He just runs his race."
Rajiv Maragh, winning jockey: "I felt like he was full of run, and I felt like we kind of had them measured. I just hoped he'd continue his run and not ease up, and he continued running, so it worked out good. It wasn't that close at the end. He showed me every indicator that he'll excel the further the distance goes, so that's not anything that I'm concerned about. I'm actually looking forward to him running those long distances."
John Velazquez, jockey of runner-up Mind Control: "He ran a huge race, but he got caught right at the wire. They went fast enough, and I was just trying to stay back and give my horse a chance. He ran like a good horse today, but the other horse got up to beat him at the wire."
Javier Castellano, jockey of third-place Instagrand: "I was fine with how he did it today. I'm not disappointed at all. He was off a long time and to bring him back at a mile, he only got beat a length. I like the way he rated behind horses. He doesn't have to be on the lead now. We can play both games. He can be right behind the horses. It's true progress for his third race. I'm very satisfied. I got beat, but I'm satisfied with the way he did it today."