Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, the Florida homebred had never raced farther than six furlongs and had never faced graded competition. He set comfortable fractions in the 1 1/16-mile event for 3-year-olds for jockey Fernando Jara while opening up a three-length lead on the backstretch. The Jules gelding came under pressure in the upper stretch but refused to throw in the towel when challenged by the Todd Pletcher-trained Keyed Entry, who was being taught to rate by jockey Edgar Prado but could not get to even terms with Like Now as they fought to the wire. The final time on the inner dirt track was 1:43.
McLaughlin is thinking Derby, with the Wood Memorial (gr. I) April 8 to be Like Now's final prep.
"You always have to look that way when you have a 3-year-old this time of year in the Gotham," McLaughlin said. "We will definitely keep taking steps forward to the Kentucky Derby."
Sweetnorthernsaint, who had won his previous three starts by a combined 33 3/4 lengths, was a half-length behind Keyed Entry in third with Kent Desormeaux riding. It was another half-length back to Greeley's Legacy, who finished fourth.
A no-show was the actual 3-2 favorite in the 10-horse field - Achilles of Troy - who started slowly and raced in the rear of the pack to the far turn. He could not make an impact while trying to rally on the outside for Ramon Dominguez. A stakes winner on the Aqueduct inner dirt in both of his last two starts, Achilles of Troy checked in fifth.
Dominguez pulled up his Derby prospect after the finish on the clubhouse turn, and the colt was vanned off the Aqueduct track in a horse ambulance. The early report from the chief examining veterinarian was a sore right front leg.
"He was in a little bit of discomfort," Dominguez said. "He wasn't himself. He was acting a little sore."
"At this point, there was nothing we could see or feel," track veterinarian Dr. Anthony Verderosa said.
Putonyerdancinshuz, Hesanoldsalt, Sunshine Alpine, Eagle Head, and Church Service trailed.
Like Now scored his third win on the inner dirt course, coming off a front-running 2 3/4-length score in the Fred Capossela Feb. 18. Out of the Pine Bluff mare Can't Bluff Me, he has now won four of seven in his career and has earnings of $213,932.
McLaughlin says he's fortunate to still have Like Now in his barn. Last year, the gelding could have been claimed on two occasions.
"We got lucky we didn't lose the horse (as a maiden claimer)," McLaughlin said. "He's a sound horse, and he's never missed a day of training; and Jules is not a sprint sire."
He broke running and led Keyed Entry and Sweetnorthernsaint through fractions of :23 1/5, :47 3/5 and 1:12 1/5 while building a solid lead early and continuing to show the way off the final turn. Like Now dug in determinedly when tackled in the stretch and held off 8-5 second choice Keyed Entry while drifting out a bit in deep stretch under left-handed urging by Jara.
Like Now paid $74.50, $22.20, and $10.20, topping a $235.50 exacta with Keyed Entry ($3.70, $3.30), who had won his first three races, including the Hutcheson (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park in his last start.
Keyed Entry remains on schedule for the Derby.
"This sets him up nicely for the Wood, if that's what Todd wants to do," Pletcher's assistant Seth Benzel said. "It's always nice to come back with a win, but leading up to the Kentucky Derby, a win isn't always the most important thing."
Sweetnorthernsaint, coming off a stakes win at Laurel Park, was $5.10 to show.
One Way Flight scratched.