Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
As Haikal swept past Mind Control, Instagrand, and Much Better in deep stretch of the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on March 9, one question popped up almost immediately: was Haikal simply the beneficiary of a pace meltdown or a legitimate 2019 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve contender? Let’s take a closer look..
Ability: Let’s begin this profile of Haikal with the positives.
A Shadwell Stable homebred by Daaher, Haikal has never run a bad race with three wins and a second by a neck in four races. After a runner-up finish in his career debut, the bay colt closed from seventh of nine to win a three-quarter-mile maiden race by a neck on Dec. 15 at Aqueduct. He followed by charging from fifth of seven to win the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, also by a neck, on Feb. 9 at Aqueduct.
He earned a 92 Equibase Speed Figure for his debut. Haikal improved to a 99 for his second start and paired that with a 99 in the Jimmy Winkfield, which was an extremely promising sign entering the Gotham Stakes in which he was asked to face the toughest competition of his career while stretching out in distance to a mile.
Southern California invader Much Better set a sizzling pace in the Gotham, leading by 3 ½ lengths through a half-mile in 44.42 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.23.
Haikal dropped 14 lengths back through a half-mile, reserving his energy for a stretch bid, while even-money favorite Instagrand tracked in third and Jerome Stakes winner Mind Control was six lengths in front of Haikal in sixth.
Both Instagrand and Mind Control moved up to challenge Much Better in early stretch and the trio was lined up across the track, separated by about a neck, while Haikal still had about five lengths of ground to make up.
For several strides it looked like there was little chance Haikal could win, but inside the final sixteenth of a mile the front-running trio clearly began to shorten stride and Haikal surged past to win by a length.
Haikal earned a career-best 104 Equibase Speed Figure, a quality, steady progression at this time of year when monster efforts often negatively impact the next race.
Haikal’s 95 Beyer Speed Figure is tied for second with Code of Honor’s 95 for his March 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes victory among winners of Kentucky Derby points races in the calendar year, just a point behind Tax’s 96 for the Feb. 2 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct. This has not been an especially fast group with a high of 97 for a winner on the Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule when considering the 2-year-old preps as well.
TimeForm U.S. gave Haikal a 118 rating, which was on par with Tax and Code of Honor as the fastest rating for a Derby prep winner in the calendar year.
Brisnet speed figures also indicate steady progression from a 95 for his first win to a 99 for the Jimmy Winkfield victory to a new career-top 102 for the Gotham.
Haikal has steadily improved in four races, including an incremental step forward that should make him a serious threat in his final Derby prep race if he can match his Gotham speed figures. Compared with the rest of this group of 3-year-olds, he’s proved as fast as any of them from the prep races to date.
There are a couple of reasons for concern, however, including the fact that he has never raced longer than a mile or navigated two turns in a race. There are some smart analysts who peg him long-range as a closer best-suited to one-turn races and sprints.
He also had an absolutely ideal setup in the Gotham coupled with a picture-perfect ride from jockey Rajiv Maragh. None of the runners in the Gotham finished fast and, in this case, one could argue that Haikal was simply the only contender not running on fumes in the final sixteenth of a mile.
The final quarter-mile was run in a dawdling 26.29 seconds according to Trakus. Haikal, who was more than eight lengths back at that point, ran his final quarter-mile in a much-better 24.90 seconds and a final eighth of a mile in 12.49 seconds, both respectable finishing times but not eye-catching.
Running style: In each of his four career starts, Haikal has rallied from off the pace. He is a dedicated closer and in the Gotham he certainly benefitted from a swift early pace. The previous five editions of the Kentucky Derby have been won by horses on or near the pace, but closers Orb (2013), Animal Kingdom (2011), and Mine That Bird (2009) have won the race in the last 10 editions while stalkers like I’ll Have Another (2012) and Super Saver (2010) rallied from farther back than usual in the Derby with a field of up to 20 runners.
Closers typically need at least an honest pace in the Derby, and encountering traffic while navigating a path through a large field is a significant obstacle.
Since the installation of the Derby points system in 2013, which eliminated quite a few speedy contenders coming out of sprint graded stakes, the Derby has set up much better for horses with tactical speed.
Connections: Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Shadwell Farm bred Haikal and races him as Shadwell Stable. A member of the ruling family of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan is Dubai's deputy ruler and the minister of finance for the United Arab Emirates. His brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum is the ruler of Dubai.
Shadwell is an international racing powerhouse that won the Eclipse Award as outstanding owner in 2007 a year after Sheikh Hamdan’s Invasor was named 2006 Horse of the Year. Shadwell also won the Belmont Stakes in 2006 with Jazil.
Sheikh Hamdan is a six-time champion owner in England. His first of nine European classic victories with homebreds came with Nashwan in the 1989 Two Thousand Guineas. Nashwan also won that year’s Epsom Derby.
Haikal’s trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, was an assistant for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and later trained for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashad al Maktoum in Dubai. He spent the next 10 years training for Sheikh Mohammed and his brother Sheikh Hamdan in Dubai and New York. McLaughlin was the leading trainer in Dubai four times.
McLaughlin subsequently returned to the United States full time to open a public stable and Shadwell has been a top client. He trained the aforementioned Invasor and Jazil for Shadwell and his three Breeders’ Cup victories – Invasor (2006 Classic), Lahudood (2007 Filly and Mare Turf), and Tamarkuz (2016 Dirt Mile) – came with Shadwell runners. According to Equineline stats, McLaughlin has amassed 1,536 victories and 42 Grade 1 wins from 175 graded stakes victories through March 11. McLaughlin’s best finish in the Kentucky Derby came when Closing Argument ran second in 2005.
Rajiv Maragh has ridden Haikal for all three of his wins. Maragh overcame a life-threatening injury from a fall in July 2015 that kept him out of action for 16 months. The native of Kingston, Jamaica provided the feel-good story of the 2017 Kentucky Derby as the rider of second betting choice Irish War Cry, who finished 10th and later ran second under Maragh in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. Maragh’s best finish with six mounts in the Kentucky Derby was a third in 2011 on Mucho Macho Man.
Since taking out his jockey’s license in 2003, Maragh has won 1,859 races, including 176 stakes wins and 76 graded stakes victories, through March 11.
Pedigree: Haikal is from the eighth crop of Daaher, who won four of nine starts for Shadwell, including the Grade 2 Hill ‘n’ Dale Cigar Mile Handicap in 2007.
With only 103 starters to date, Daaher has not been an especially popular stallion commercially, but he does have 66 winners and 13 stakes winners, including multiple graded stakes winner Gypsy Robin, from that small group. With an average winning distance of 6.87 furlongs for his progeny, however, it does appear that there could be some distance concerns.
Haikal’s dam (mother), Sablah, by Distorted Humor was unraced. In addition to Haikal, Sablah also produced Grade 1-winning sprinter Takaful.
Like Sablah, Haikal’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Teeba, by Seeking the Gold, was a Shadwell homebred. Teeba won at a mile and placed in a pair of stakes in England. She produced Group 2-placed stakes winner Ghaamer.
Haikal’s third dam (maternal great-grandmother) was Shadwell homebred classic winner Shadayid, by Shadeed, who won five of 11 starts, including the 1991 English One Thousand Guineas, and was a champion as a 2-year-old. An elite miler, Shadayid also was very productive in her second career, producing three stakes winners.
Based on Haikal’s pedigree, it’s easy to understand the reservations about his ability to turn in a top effort at 1 ¼ miles. Distance also is a concern for me, and I’ll wait to see him win around two turns before getting too excited.
Haikal is fast and talented, however, in a year that seems to be lacking many 3-year-olds that fit that description, and he’s in the capable hands of McLaughlin while improving steadily.