OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Owner Klaravich Stables and trainer Chad Brown already campaigned a winner in a Kentucky Derby qualifier in New York when Risk Taking captured the Grade 3 Withers last month. On Saturday, they will look to earn “Run for the Roses” points with stakes-winner Highly Motivated in the Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham for sophomores at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The one-turn mile event is the penultimate local qualifying prep race for the Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs, awarding the top-four finishers points via a 50-20-10-5 scale. The historic event has been a stopping point for all-time greats like 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, whose final winning time of 1:33.40 was only one second and one-fifth off the world-record time set by 1967 Gotham winner Dr. Fager’s 1:32.20 in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap. In 1989, Ogden Phipps’ Easy Goer broke Secretariat’s one-mile track record, completing the journey in 1:32.40.
Highly Motivated has produced a consistent start to his career, with back-to-back wins following his runner-up debut effort behind stablemate Founder in August at Saratoga Race Course.
Highly Motivated graduated at second asking going 6 ½ furlongs over the Belmont Park main track on September 27, where he defeated eventual two-time winner Known Agenda, who finished third in the Grade 2 Remsen in December.
Last out, Highly Motivated displayed a winning effort in the Nyquist on November 6 traveling 6 1/2-furlongs at Keeneland. The son of Into Mischief settled a close fourth behind a grueling pace and took command just inside the eighth pole to draw off by 4 ½ lengths, defeating next-out winners Quick Tempo and Roderick while recording a 96 Beyer Speed Figure.
“All three of his races have been excellent, they have been outstanding efforts,” said Brown, who trained 2016 Gotham-winner Shagaf. “He certainly has kept good company. That’s the thing about starting these horses at Saratoga in the summer and at Belmont in the fall, you never know who you’ll run into. Looking back, history tells how strong these races are and he was in some pretty strong ones. It looks to be a real solid group of 3-year-olds everywhere, and he’s one of them.”
Highly Motivated arrives at the Gotham off a sharp half-mile breeze on February 28 over a fast main track at Payson Park Training Center, completing the four-furlong journey in 49.40 seconds. He shipped to Brown’s Belmont Park division on Wednesday morning.
“Every work of his has been an improvement,” Brown said. “His last couple in particular have been very strong works. We rested him a bit and brought him back slowly. We’re ready to get his 3-year-old campaign underway.”
Bloodstock agent Mike Ryan selected Highly Motivated as a weanling from Lanes’ End’s consignment at the 2018 Keeneland November Sale, where he was purchased for $240,000.
Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano has ridden Highly Motivated in all three of his starts and will return to the saddle, breaking from post 3.
“He’s a big, strong horse,” Brown said. “Javier has come back after his races and says he should improve going further. His gallop outs have been eye-catching so that indicated that stretching out in distance won’t be an issue.”
Brown and Klaravich also team up with impressive maiden-winner Crowded Trade, a son of More Than Ready. The chestnut colt registered an 83 Beyer on debut when hustled out of the gate and settled a distant fifth off a moderate pace before taking command just a few strides out from the finish line.
Since his debut victory, Crowded Trade has made three appearances on the work tab, most recently completing a four-furlong move in 49.03 seconds on February 28 over the Belmont training track.
Breaking from post 5, Crowded Trade will be piloted by Eric Cancel.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sends out graded stakes-placed Freedom Fighter after finishing a close second to stablemate Concert Tour in the Grade 2 San Vicente on February 6 at Santa Anita.
Owned by SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Golconda Stables, Siena Farm and Robert E. Masterson, the son of Violence was after the front end early from his inside post commanding a moderate tempo and dueled with his stablemate throughout the stretch run but came up a half-length shy of victory in the seven-furlong event.
Freedom Fighter was a winner on debut going six furlongs on August 1 at Del Mar six months prior to his next out stakes debut.
“He ran a pretty courageous race after some time off to finish second to Concert Tour, who I think is a nice horse,” Baffert said. “I wanted to keep him one turn for now. I’m not sure what his distance limitations are going to be right now, but I think the Gotham is a good step up going from seven-eighths to a mile. He should be ready for that.”
Freedom Fighter arrives at the Gotham off a sharp five-furlong drill in 59.20 seconds on February 27 at Santa Anita – the fastest of 63 recorded works at the distance.
“He’s been working well. He’s coming into the race in top form,” said Baffert. “We’ll see if he can get the mile. If you look at him, he’s built for speed – a sprinter type. But so was [2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner] Smarty Jones. You never know. I’ll give the horse a chance to develop on his own.”
Bred in Kentucky by Mr. and Mrs. Troy Reed, Freedom Fighter is out of the New York-bred City Zip mare Canadian Ballet, who was a six-time stakes winner going one turn on both dirt and turf. Freedom Fighter was bought for $120,000 from the Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency consignment at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale for $120,000.
Baffert said Freedom Fighter will have to demonstrate his Derby credentials on Saturday if he is to advance to the first Saturday in May.
“I’m not really thinking Derby with him yet,” said Baffert. “He’s going to have to prove himself and then we’ll see where he fits in.”
Jockey Manny Franco has the call aboard Freedom Fighter from post 7.
Bing Cherry Racing and Leonard Liberto’s Capo Kane returns to the Big A after finishing a pace-setting third in the Grade 3 Withers on February 6.
The California-bred Street Sense colt trained by Harold Wyner graduated at second asking on November 25 at Parx, leading the field the whole way around. He shipped to Aqueduct on New Years’ Day to capture the Jerome in similar style, earning 10 Derby points.
Wyner said Capo Kane is likely to rate on Saturday and he prepared the colt with a smart five-eighths breeze in 1:00.21 on February 26 at Parx where he sat off a pair of workmates before circling his company and finishing strong.
Although the Street Sense bay has posted both career wins in gate-to-wire fashion, Wyner noted that Capo Kane ran second on debut in October at Parx going seven furlongs while utilizing an off-the-pace trip.
“We have rated him before,” said Wyner. “In his first race, he came from behind and made the lead and then got a little tired and finished second. Lately, he’s been on the lead because he has speed, but I think there will be other speed in the Gotham, so we’ll let it play out.”
Wyner said Capo Kane has benefitted from a more consistent training pattern heading into the Gotham.
“I think the cut back to a one-turn mile is going to help him,” said Wyner. “In the Withers, I didn’t really have the screws all the way tight on him because I had missed five days of training and I couldn’t breeze him when I wanted to breeze him. Going into this race, I was able to breeze him when I wanted to and train him as normal.”
Jockey Dylan Davis, who guided Capo Kane in his last two efforts, will return from post 6.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will send out Atlantic Road following a maiden victory at second asking on February 8 at Aqueduct, where he led from gate to wire to hold off Nepotism by a head.
Owned by Jack and Laurie Wolf’s Starlight Racing, the son of Quality Road finished fifth on debut going six furlongs on January 9 at Gulfstream Park in a maiden special weight which saw three other next-out winners. He displayed frontrunning dimensions in his following start when breaking from the rail, shaking off a confrontation from next-out winner Three Two Zone and holding off a late challenge from Nepotism.
Pletcher will be targeting his third Gotham victory having won previously with Cowtown Cat  and Stay Thirsty , who finished a respective 20th and 12th in their subsequent Kentucky Derby efforts.
Atlantic Road breaks from post 1 under Jorge Vargas, Jr.
Reddam Racing’s Wipe the Slate ships to New York from California for trainer Doug O’Neill and will remove blinkers and cut back to one turn after a distant sixth in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis on January 30 at Santa Anita.
The son of second crop sire Nyquist was second to highly-regarded Life Is Good on debut at Del Mar before a second-out graduation on December 26 at Santa Anita going seven furlongs, which he won by 3 ¼ lengths while garnering an 88 Beyer.
Jockey Kendrick Carmouche rides Wipe the Slate from post 4.
Completing the field are Flanagan Racing’s nine-furlong maiden winner The Reds [post 2, Pablo Morales] for trainer John Kimmel and seven-furlong maiden winner Weyburn [post 8, Trevor McCarthy] for owner Chiefswood Stables and trainer Jimmy Jerkens.
The Gotham is slated as Race 9 on Saturday’s 10-race card. First post is 12:50 p.m. Eastern.