A Fast Horse Walks Away From the Kentucky Derby Circuit

At Aqueduct Racetrack March 9, jockey Rajiv Maragh (at far left) rides Haikal from behind to take the Gotham Stakes from the leader, John Velazquez atop Mind Control, pressing against the rails. (Photo courtesy of the New York Racing Association.)




Derby fever lost a little bit of its heat this week at Aqueduct Racetrack after it was announced that an up-and-coming contender, Mind Control, would not run after all in the Wood Memorial Stakes on Saturday. But in true racing style, another horse, Haikal, is coming up fast on the outside to try to fill the gap.

Held annually at the Queens track since 1960, the Wood Memorial is one of the more important qualifiers ahead of next month’s Kentucky Derby, the first and most famous leg of racing’s Triple Crown. Racing teams are still jockeying to take part in the derby, held in Louisville, Kentucky, this year on May 4. While not the top graded event on the Ozone Park track’s yearly schedule, the Wood Memorial does carry its largest purse, at $750,000, and its winner will get a real leg up on competitors hoping to get in on the “Run for the Roses.”

This year, Mind Control, a three-year-old thoroughbred colt, was anticipated to be a strong competitor in the Wood, potentially heading from there to Churchill Downs for his first shot at the Derby. The Kentucky-bred bay debuted last July, placing second at Delaware Park in Stanton and taking first in his next race at the Grade-1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga in September. (In horse racing, individual events are graded based on the performance level of the horses involved, with races drawing the highest quality rated at a 1.)

After a disappointing seventh-place run at the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in Kentucky last November, Mind Control started the new year with a first-place finish in the Jerome Stakes. Held at Aqueduct on January 1, that one-turn, mile-long race carries a modest purse and earns its winners 10 points toward the Kentucky Derby. Mind Control had started with an early lead, and held it all the way.

Coming off from that win, Mind Control was next set to compete in another Aqueduct race and Derby qualifier, the Gotham Stakes, on March 9. Worth more in terms of points and winnings, the race also promised tougher competition, among them Instagrand, an undefeated Californian colt, and Knicks Go, which had taken second place at the Hopeful Stakes.

At the Gotham, Mind Control was able to beat out those two touted rivals, sticking to the rail. In an unexpected turn though, the colt still came in second by a neck’s length—to Haikal, who had sprinted up from behind along the outside in the final furlongs for the win.

After Mind Control placed second in the Gotham, trainer Gregory Sacco indicated the colt was still Woodward-bound. In a New York Racing Association press release on March 11, Sacco said, “Moving forward, going two turns in the Wood is the next logical spot. He has the tactical speed to be forwardly placed and we know he doesn’t need the lead. I think he’ll be able to settle and if it’s a paceless race”—one without a clear favorite, often favoring a closer—“he can make it. What we learned yesterday is a real big plus for Mind Control.”

But just over a week before the Wood Memorial was set to start, Sacco announced that Mind Control will not be participating after all. The horse’s owners and manager had decided to instead prepare for the Bay Shore Stakes, a seven-furlong race with a $250,000 purse also scheduled Saturday at the Aqueduct (the racetrack will be hosting five graded races throughout the day). After that, Sacco indicated, Mind Control would aim to compete in the Woody Stephens, a G1 race held at Belmont Park in Elmont on June 8, the same day the Triple Crown Belmont Stakes will be held.

This trajectory takes Mind Control off this year’s Kentucky Derby route. Before Friday’s announcement, he had been number 11 on the derby’s leaderboard, and even after the weekend’s races still would be in 16th or 17th position to compete if his people chose to enter him. Inclusion in the famed race is limited to the top 20 steeds, based on points earned in other ranked races. Mind Control had picked up 20 points with his second-place finish in the mile-long Gotham, on top of another 10 points earned by winning the similarly distanced Jerome Stakes at the Aqueduct in January.

Still, Mind Control’s exit from the Wood Memorial is a big opportunity for other contenders this weekend. Placing well in the Wood is worth twice as many points as the Gotham, with 100 points going to the winner, 40 to second place, 20 to third, and 10 to fourth. However, the stakes will also be lower: Because the horse had been a previous G1 winner at Saratoga, having Mind Control as a starter in the Wood would have boosted the race’s purse from $750,000 to $1,000,000.

But Wood is still set to be an exciting race, with another Kentucky-bred three-year-old, Gotham winner Haikal, slated to compete. Standing at 50 points and eighth-ranked among contenders for this year’s Kentucky Derby, the horse has turned heads this past year by finishing his races in a late sprint and winning by a neck or a length. Haikal has a solid record—after opening with a second-place finish in his debut last November, his last three races have been first-place wins.

At nine furlongs, the Wood Memorial would be the longest race Haikal will have run in, but that is something trainer Kiarin McLaughlin expects will surmountable.

“We were hoping he could go a mile or further, and the pace was very fast, which helped us,” he said in a press statement. “But he’s got a great mind. He does everything right. We don’t think nine furlongs will be a problem, either, though we aren’t going to get such a hot pace to run. Hopefully, we won’t have to have a hot pace.”

If the colt runs in the Wood, Haikal would likely be joined by other Kentucky Derby contenders, including Tacitus, which also has 50 points after winning the Tampa Bay Derby last month. The lineup for this weekend is still undetermined, but contenders Outshine (number 22), Tax (number 24), and Not That Brady (number 43) are all considered probable starters.

The gates open Saturday at 11 a.m., with the first post scheduled for 1 p.m. Five races are planned for the day with a combined $1.85 million purse, including the Carter Handicap, the Bay Shore, the Gazelle, and the Excelsior stakes.