03/18/2006 1:00AM

Like Now's not just a sprinter

Like Now (right) holds off Keyed Entry (center) and Sweetnorthernsaint to win the Gotham.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Four months ago, the Kentucky Derby was the furthest thing from trainer Kiaran McLaughlin's mind when it came to his 2-year-old gelding Like Now.

Saturday, after Like Now went gate to wire to upset the $200,000 at Aqueduct, McLaughlin was dreaming of a return trip to Churchill Downs, where last May he fell a nose short of victory with 71-1 shot Closing Argument.

Like Now, who twice ran in maiden claiming races last fall, earned his right to continue down the Triple Crown trail by successfully carrying his speed around two turns, recording a neck victory over Keyed Entry in the Grade 3 Gotham. It was another half-length back to Sweetnorthernsaint.

Achilles of Troy, the 3-2 favorite, finished fifth after breaking poorly. His rider, Ramon Dominguez, said the horse was sore in his right foreleg. Achilles of Troy was vanned off and taken back to his barn.

Like Now, a son of Jules owned and bred by John Dillon, had won an entry-level allowance race and the Fred "Cappy" Capossela Stakes, both at six furlongs. The Gotham, at 1 1/16 miles, was his first race beyond six furlongs.

Leaving from post 4 under Fernando Jara, Like Now outbroke Eagle Head and sprinted to a three-length lead after running a quarter mile in 23.25 seconds. Like Now continued to lead while carving out splits of 47.78 and 1:12.30. Keyed Entry, the previously undefeated son of Honour and Glory, stalked Like Now from second under Edgar Prado.

Turning for home, Keyed Entry looked poised to pounce, but Like Now opened up again in upper stretch and held off a resurgent Keyed Entry to win by a neck. Like Now covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.17 and returned $74.50 to win.

"I thought we would outbreak him and beat him to the first turn and that was important, but if he wanted to pass us he probably had the horse to go past us, but it looked like Edgar decided to just sit off of us, which worked out well," said McLaughlin, who will run Like Now back in the Wood Memorial on April 8.

Todd Pletcher, who watched the Gotham from Tampa Bay Downs, said the strategy was to get Keyed Entry - a front-running winner in his first three starts - to settle

"It might have backfired a little in this race, but it might be the best thing in the long run,'' Pletcher said.

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch