The Grade 3 Gotham stands out among the traditional second-round preps for the Kentucky Derby since it is the only one contested around a single turn. As such, it can serve as a valuable stepping-stone for Derby candidates who are not quite ready to transition from sprint races to two-turn events. It also provides an opportunity to turn back in distance and earn valuable qualifying points for horses who have failed in two-turn prep races.
The star attraction in this year’s Gotham is Instragrand, who falls into the former category – a distinguished sprinter who will be attempting to prove he is as proficient over route distances. From that perspective, the Gotham seems like the perfect choice for a horse such as this. However, his task will not be easy. Even though he is likely to be heavily favored, there are some seasoned rivals in this field who could offer serious challenges.
The Pace Projector also suggests that Instagrand (#6) will have to deal with a new situation. He has been victorious by going to the lead through moderate fractions in his prior starts, but he is expected to encounter a fast pace, with some serious speed surrounding him in the early going. Horses like Knicks Go (#2) and Not That Brady (#7) have needed the early lead in order to put forth top efforts, while runners like Mind Control (#3), Much Better (#4), and Tikhvin Flew (#8) are quite tactical and could wind up in front if they break cleanly. Few would doubt that the Instagrand we saw last year is the most naturally talented horse in this race, but it remains to be seen if he can win rating, or while overcoming a taxing pace situation. If the race does fall apart late, Jimmy Winkfield winner Haikal (#5) should be charging in the lane.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, FAMILY BIZ (30-1): You could make a case for him hitting the board if you think this race is going to feature a total pace meltdown. While I do think they’ll be moving up front, a lot of horses would need to come to a stop in the lane for this one to be a significant stretch factor. Pass.
#2, KNICKS GO (12-1): The train has come off the tracks in his last two starts after he ascended to improbable heights in the fall of his juvenile season. As abruptly as he became a serious factor in Grade 1 events at the height of his powers, he has since all but disappeared from the conversation. Those who are feeling optimistic about a rebound performance will hope that he appreciates the turnback in distance, but I have trouble buying that argument. After all, it was the stretch-out to two-turn events that sparked his initial improvement. It’s unclear if he’s fast enough to make the lead over horses like Instagrand and Not That Brady, and he could be in serious trouble if he finds himself in behind horses, taking dirt once again. Pass.
#3, MIND CONTROL (9-2): With the exception of his dismal effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, this horse has done nothing wrong in his five starts. He was never going to be a serious factor at Churchill Downs, but I would just draw a line through that performance. He was off in a tangle and could never get into his preferred position toward the front of the pack. Irad Ortiz basically gave up halfway through the race, allowing him to drop back to last on the far turn. Fortunately, this colt returned looking better than ever in the Jerome in early January. While his trip was hardly taxing, I liked the way he finished that race, responding to Velazquez’s urging as he easily kept runner-up Our Braintrust at bay in the final furlong and galloped out with vigor. Our Braintrust returned to validate the strength of the Jerome by improving his speed figure while finishing a close third in the Withers next time out.
Unlike some other early-pace types in this Gotham, I do not get the sense that Mind Control needs to be on the lead. He stalked without issue and won his maiden at Monmouth as a 2-year-old. Even in his Hopeful and Champagne victories, he rated kindly on the lead through the early stages, not tugging at Velazquez while waiting for his cues. I expect him to slot in behind the early leaders and pounce at the top of the stretch. If he kicks for him as he did last time, I think he’s a serious threat to win this. There is still a question as to his overall quality, but I’m not convinced that Instagrand is going to come back in top form or that Not That Brady can repeat his Withers speed figure with a more taxing trip. Mind Control may not be a factor on the Derby trail moving forward, but he seems like the right horse today. The selection.
#4, MUCH BETTER (10-1): I would not read too much into the fact that Mike Smith has come to New York since racing is currently suspended in California and he was not originally slated to ride this runner. While his allowance win in February was visually impressive, he was beating a fairly weak field and seemed to benefit from the shorter distance. I thought he ran quite well within the context of the race in his third-place finish in the Sham two back, but the way he seized up in the final furlong leaves me concerned about his stamina. I won’t be surprised if he shows some improvement, but a victory seems just out of reach. A bit of a stretch.
#5, HAIKAL (6-1): Conventional wisdom with respect to pace handicapping would lead you to believe that this is the horse you want. This eight-horse field features six runners who are likely to contest the early lead and a pair of closers, one of whom seems overmatched. That leaves Haikal as the logical choice to fall into the perfect trip. Yet the question remains: Is this horse good enough? I have my doubts. He was visually impressive in his first couple of starts, closing from far behind to get involved in photo finishes. However, he benefited from fast paces on both occasions. While he handled the rise in class with no trouble in the Jimmy Winkfield, he again benefited from incredibly favorable circumstances. Haikal took advantage of an extremely strong inside bias, staying right on the rail for the entirety of his trip. Even with that bias-aided trip, it still took him the entire length of the stretch to forge past the leaders. If this horse were really good enough to win a race like the Gotham, I feel that he should have run faster under the circumstances last time. I won’t be shocked if he gets a big piece of the purse here, especially if the pace sets up for him, but I think he’s a bit of a trap at a similar price to my top pick. Exotics factor.
#6, INSTAGRAND (1-1): This horse is the enigma of the field. There’s little doubt that he was the most talented runner in this group when he was last seen during the summer. He won both of his starts with ease, rating beautifully on the front end before kicking strongly in the lane. Horses capable of running as fast as he did in the summer of his 2-year-old season have the potential to go on to highly successful 3-year-old campaigns. Yet most of those runners develop through additional racing, whereas Instagrand was intentionally taken off the track following that Best Pal win. While it’s somewhat comforting that he didn’t sustain an injury – often the cause of such layoffs – it still remains a mystery if he has developed at all during the layoff.
The Instagrand that we saw as a 2-year-old did not present himself as a horse who would necessarily relish added ground. He displayed the quick, efficient stride of a sprinter with a serious turn of foot. While he gives the physical impression of a horse with distance limitations, his pedigree offers some hope. He is a full brother to Aerial Assets, who was primarily a dirt router, and his dam excelled at distances from six furlongs to a mile and 70 yards. The problem with accepting a short price on this horse is that there is so much uncertainty around this return beyond his physical capabilities. What kind of trip is he going to work out? Can he rate behind horses? How will he handle a slower East Coast track? He may still be the most naturally gifted runner in this group, but you’re supposed to take a shot against him on this occasion. A potentially vulnerable favorite.
#7, NOT THAT BRADY (5-1): The main question facing this New York-bred is how to assess his performance in the Withers. There’s little doubt that he ran extremely well within the context of that race, overcoming a wide run into the clubhouse turn and being hard used to make the lead from his outside post position. He battled on gamely through the lane to lose by a frustrating head. However, the quality of that race has to be questioned. He earned a massive 120 TimeformUS Speed Figure for that performance, and his 95 Beyer Speed Figure is right in line with that number, considering that he set the pace. Yet the numbers earned by the entire Withers field are so much higher than what they had achieved previously that one has to question the predictive value of the figures moving forward. I believe it’s quite possible that the Withers figures are five to eight points too high. However, even with a slightly reduced last-out figure, Not That Brady is still a serious contender in this race.
I’m actually more concerned about his potential trip, as he is drawn outside of the other pace rivals and would have to be hard sent to make the lead. He’s enjoyed a clear early advantage in his last four starts, and he’s never run a competitive race without the lead. I think it would be a mistake to leave him out given his apparent talent, but I have too many concerns pertaining to his trip to put him on top. One of the main threats.
#8, TIKHVIN FLEW (12-1): Those paying close attention to track biases at this meet will be looking to upgrade this longshot. While he appears to be inferior to Haikal based on their Jimmy Winkfield results, there’s little doubt that this colt actually ran the superior race that day. The Feb. 9 surface was among the most intensely rail-biased tracks that we saw during the entire meet. Whereas Haikal rode the rail to victory, Tikhvin Flew endured a three-wide trip. There is little doubt in my mind that the result would have been different had their trips been reversed. While I think Tikhvin Flew deserves respect in this spot, I still have some trouble justifying him as a top selection. Not only does he need to improve on the stretch-out in distance, but he may have to overcome a wide trip, chasing the pace. If you’ve seen this colt’s races, it’s apparent that he has a great deal of talent, but this is a daunting assignment. Don’t underestimate.
Instagrand (#6) is a deserving favorite, but I think he’s vulnerable at a particularly short price off the considerable layoff. I’m taking a shot with MIND CONTROL (#3), who should work out a great stalking trip from his inside post position. He has fewer questions to answer than the other main contenders and figures to be a square price. I would play him at odds of 7-2 or higher.
Exacta Key Box: 3 with 5,6,7,8
Trifecta: 3 with 6,7,8 with 4,5,6,7,8
Trifecta: 6,7,8 with 3 with 4,5,6,7,8