As a general rule, speed is dominant in dirt racing. If you can consistently identify the most likely pacesetter in any given race, then you’re well on your way to becoming a profitable bettor.
But even though speed is dominant, that doesn’t mean pacesetters always prevail. Consider, for example, the statistics for one-mile races held on the main track at Aqueduct. Just 20% of such races are won in gate-to-wire fashion, which presents an interesting quandary when handicapping Saturday’s $300,000, Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Contested at one mile, the Gotham has attracted a field absolutely packed with speed. Any horse hoping to become the first gate-to-wire Gotham winner since 2006 will face a stiff challenge in doing so. Many bettors will be keen to support the pure front-runner #7 Freedom Fighter, who ships in from California for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. A determined maiden winner last summer, Freedom Fighter recently returned from a long layoff to finish second in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes dashing seven-eighths of a mile at Santa Anita.
But Freedom Fighter has enjoyed easy leads in both of his starts, and he’ll almost assuredly face more pressure in the Gotham. #6 Capo Kane, for example, won Aqueduct’s Jerome Stakes in gate-to-wire fashion before weakening to third in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes. Promising maiden winners #1 Atlantic Road and #8 Weyburn achieved their breakthrough victories while racing on the front end. And while #4 Wipe the Slate has yet to employ front-running tactics, the son of Nyquist is never far out of contention and figures to lurk just behind the pacesetters on Saturday, waiting for the right moment to crank up the pressure.
In other words, the Gotham seems destined to unfold at a destructive pace detrimental to speed horses. That’s what happened in 2019, when Baffert’s speedy front-runner Much Better carved out blazing fractions of :22.36, :44.42, and 1:09.23, which burned up all the pace horses (including future Pegasus World Cup winner Knicks Go) while allowing the stretch-running duo of Haikal and Mind Control to rally and finish 1-2.
If history repeats itself on Saturday, which horses stand to benefit? The obvious choice is #3 Highly Motivated, the 8-5 morning line favorite for four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown. Highly Motivated isn’t a one-dimensional deep closer, but he’s shown more tractability than many of his Gotham rivals, as demonstrated in the Nyquist Stakes at Keeneland last fall. After rating in fourth place behind fast fractions of :21.73 and :44.65, Highly Motivated pounced to the lead with authority down the stretch, pulling away to win by 4 1/4 lengths in the track-record time of 1:14.99.
The strength of Highly Motivated’s effort is indicated by the quality of the horses he defeated. Runner-up Quick Tempo came back to win the Sugar Bowl Stakes in his very next start. Third-place finisher Roderick likewise return to win his next race, and he’s entered in the Hutcheson Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Fourth-place finisher Awesome Gerry went on to place twice against stakes company and is entered in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday, while sixth-place runner Saffa’s Day competed in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes last week.
Highly Motivated hasn’t run since November, but he’s trained nicely in preparation for his return, and the perfect pace setup he figures to enjoy on Saturday may compensate for any rustiness he displays off the layoff. I would be tempted to consider Highly Motivated a shoo-in to win, if not for the presence of his own up-and-coming stablemate #5 Crowded Trade.
Indeed, the second Brown trainee might be a star in the making. The son of More Than Ready has only run once, but it was a big effort. In his debut sprinting at Aqueduct on Jan. 28, Crowded Trade broke poorly and fell 7 1/2 lengths behind a modest early pace. But despite this unfavorable setup, Crowded Trade unleashed a sustained, wide rally around the turn and through the stretch to win by a length.
Crowded Trade appeared to be just getting going in the final eighth of a mile, which he completed in the rapid time of :12.23 seconds. Nor was he running down a tiring leader — runner-up Hyperactive Chris ran a winning race in his own right, pulling 8 3/4 lengths clear of the rest. Crowded Trade was simply the better horse on the day.
I’m excited to see what Crowded Trade can accomplish when stretching out to a mile in the Gotham. The fact he’s already won on the Aqueduct main track is a positive compared with Freedom Fighter and Highly Motivated. If the Gotham unfolds at a blazing tempo, Crowded Trade can pick up the pieces in the homestretch, charging late to defeat the pacesetters and even Highly Motivated in the drive to the finish line.
Our wagering strategies will be simple. We’ll take a shot betting Crowded Trade and Highly Motivated to finish first and second, in either order. For third place, we’ll add Freedom Fighter, Wipe the Slate, and longshot #2 The Reds, another late runner who hopes to capitalize on a taxing pace.
Wagering Strategy on a $10 Budget
$5 exacta box: 3,5 ($10)
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 9th race, $5 exacta box 3,5
Wagering Strategy on a $30 Budget
$6 exacta box: 3,5 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 9th race, $6 exacta box 3,5
$3 trifecta: 3,5 with 3,5 with 2,4,7 ($18)
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 9th race, $3 trifecta 3,5 with 3,5 with 2,4,7
Wagering Strategy on a $50 Budget
$7 exacta box: 3,5 ($14)
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 9th race, $7 exacta box 3,5
$4 trifecta: 3,5 with 3,5 with 2,4,7 ($24)
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 9th race, $4 trifecta 3,5 with 3,5 with 2,4,7
$1 superfecta: 3,5 with 3,5 with 2,4,7 with 2,4,7 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 9th race, $1 superfecta 3,5 with 3,5 with 2,4,7 with 2,4,7
Good luck, and enjoy the race!