While the rest of the front-page Kentucky Derby futures favorites spent the winter winning races from California to Florida – and all points in between — Highly Motivated spent his winter hanging out in New York.

Highly Motivated-Gotham
Highly Motivated set the 6 1/2-furlong Keeneland track record with this victory in the Nyquist Stakes. He opens his 3-year-old season Saturday in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. (Image: Coady Photography)

This was Highly Motivated’s winter: working out here and there, watching stablemate Risk Taking win last month’s Withers Stakes, and chilling out in Chad Brown’s New York barn. All while watching his Derby futures odds settle into the front row without him entering a starting gate. Highly Motivated opened the week 35/1 at Circa Sports and 20/1 at William Hill Nevada. He’ll open at 20/1 in this weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 4.

Those odds haven’t moved much throughout the winter. On Jan. 4 – with his last race two months earlier — Highly Motivated was 50/1 at Circa and 40/1 at William Hill.

Vacation time ends on Saturday, however, when Highly Motivated opens his 3-year-old campaign at Aqueduct in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes. The one-turn, mile-long Gotham offers 50-20-10-5 Derby qualifying points to its top four finishers, enough motivation to get Highly Motivated and Brown to the starting gate.

Highly Motivated runs to his name

Once Highly Motivated gets into the gate, he’s rather motivated. The Into Mischief offspring owns two firsts and a second in his three starts. He opened his career finishing second to stablemate Founder last August at Saratoga. Then, Highly Motivated opened his account a month later at Belmont Park, beating Known Agenda by nearly two lengths in a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight.

That’s not why Highly Motivated took futures bettor’s interest – along with their money. What brought his odds down to the first page of futures lists happened five weeks later at Keeneland. In the black-type Nyquist Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup undercard, Highly Motivated ran to his 2.60/1 favorite status, entering the stretch in third, then passing leaders Quick Tempo and Roderick at the eighth pole.

The dramatic 4 ¼-length victory opened eyes on several fronts. First, for Highly Motivated’s finishing flourish, one that produced a 96 Beyer Speed Figure and 104 Equibase Speed Figure. The 96 Beyer stamps Highly Motivated’s Derby credentials.

Vanquished foes make good winners down the line

The only Derby prospects clocking faster Beyers are Life Is Good (101), Medina Spirit (99 in defeat), Mandaloun (98), and now-former prospect Jackie’s Warrior (100). Essential Quality’s Southwest Stakes win came with a 96 Beyer.

Second, both Quick Tempo and Roderick won their next races. That always reflects well on a victorious horse, when his beaten rivals score down the line.

“All three of his races have been excellent. They have been outstanding efforts,” Brown told NYRA’s Ryan Martin. “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.”

Brown’s motivation: Go slow with Highly Motivated

Highly Motivated’s last workout came on Feb. 28, a decent 49.4 half-mile breeze that left Brown satisfied.

“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.”

Again, vacation time’s over for a Derby prospect who finds catching up rather easy.