Two big events highlight the racing weekend for the first Saturday in February. One of them is the X-Country Pick Four, an inter-track Pick Four that features two races from Santa Anita (San Antonio Stakes, San Marcos Handicap) and two races from Gulfstream (Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, Donn Handicap) strung together in an inter-track pick four with a half million dollar guarantee and national television coverage on Fox Sports 1 (5:30pm-7:30pm ET).
The other is Pool Two of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. Your chance to get advance odds (but with increased risk) comes again with the Churchill Downs-sponsored pool of three-year-olds. Two races this weekend, the G3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes and G3 Withers Stakes, offer insights and clues into the glamour group of three-year-olds.
Picks and Ponderings has you covered for both events. Out west, Santa Anita's three stakes are covered by Nicolle Neulist's coverage of the sophomores in the Lewis and the X-Country Pick Four races of the San Marcos and San Antonio. In Florida and part of the X-Country Pick Four, Paul Mazur has analyzed the Donn and Gulfstream Park Turf.
This piece looks at the sophomores too, focusing on the Withers Stakes, the feature of the February 7th card at Aqueduct. Three-year-olds take a stop towards the Kentucky Derby in this race that offers a 10-4-2-1 parsing of points to the top four positions, Grade Three status, and a quarter million dollars of purse money. The Withers has been a prep to the Derby for only the past three years, and 2013 winner Revolutionary was third in the Kentucky Derby. In its prior life, the Withers was typically staged at a one-turn mile in late April or early May at Aqueduct (on the main, or outer track) or Belmont, serving as a prep to the Peter Pan or the Preakness. The race honors David D. Withers (1821-92), an original investor in Monmouth Park and the first President of the Board of Control - a forerunner to the Jockey Club. Past Withers winners from its one-turn mile days include Triple Crown winner Count Fleet, who won the Withers between the first two Triple Crown events (1943), Belmont Park stakes namesakes Hill Prince (1950) and Jaipur (1962), eventual Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler (1982), and Hall of Famers Native Dancer (1953), Dr. Fager (1967) and Housebuster (1990).
Aqueduct -- Race 8 -- G3 Withers Stakes -- One and one-sixteenth miles on Inner Dirt -- post time 4:13 pm ET.
Eric Donovan, NYRA's morning line maker, made EL KABEIR a slight favorite over CLASSY CLASS with EL KABEIR favored by a tenth of a point over CLASSY CLASS, 9/5 to 2/1, respectively. If John Q. Twitter Account (or, @johnqtwitteraccount, for perspective) were making a line on the race, CLASSY CLASS would be even money and EL KABEIR would be 3/1. That's because of the positive rail bias in play on Cigar Mile Day, Remsen inclusive. And CLASSY CLASS was racing on the outside in the Remsen while Leave the Light On had the inside rail trip. The disconcerting news is that Frosted, who finished second, threw in a dud and let his crazy Tapit show in the Holy Bull, getting beaten on the square by Upstart. Whether you think CLASSY CLASS is better because he raced against the grain in the Remsen, or that the two are close in ability given how you can't sugar-coat FROSTED getting drubbed in Florida, the pick is still CLASSY CLASS. CLASSY CLASS's rider, Irad Ortiz, has been winning them in bunches in New York (six wins in the last thirteen mounts, over 20% for the meet) and when paired with the conditioner of CLASSY CLASS, they hit at a 29% wins/79% in the money rate (for fourteen starts). Back in his first start at three after that fourth in the Remsen and draws an advantageous inside post. EL KABEIR gets pushed down a slot as the Jerome field was not as strong as what he's facing here (despite the equal grades). After Chuck Lopez took the mount for Calvin Borel in the Jerome with Borel on bereavement leave, Lopez piloted him to a facile Jerome victory. Back in Kentucky he defeated LeComte steam horse Eagle, and didn't care for the sloppy tracks three back and four back in the Nashua and Champagne. Make no mistake that El KABEIR won his first start at three nicely, but this space thinks EL KABEIR may have hit his peak and doesn't think much of the Jerome field while CLASSY CLASS might still have upside going off the layoff and less because of the - all together now- gold rail on Remsen Day. A son of Blame, FAR FROM OVER is one of the squillion Todd Pletcher horses geared to three-year-old glory. It's career start two for him, so he can show some improvement or match his two turn win in December over this surface. He won at the Big A, then went back to Florida and worked - though quickly on January 25th. You have to wonder if the hot-cold temperature swing takes out the starch, or whether he can jump from a maiden win to a G3, but he's bred to handle two turns with aplomb and project to get a good inside-outside stalking trip from his position and with a pace that won't be quick, allowing him to show his tactical abilities.
#1 CLASSY CLASS (2/1)
#7 EL KABEIR (9/5)
#2 FAR FROM OVER (5/1)
Longshot: Ninety-nine percent of selectors, including the knucklehead up there, took either CLASSY CLASS or EL KABEIR on top in the Withers. This space is not ninety-nine percent of selectors. If both CLASSY CLASS decide to duel on the engine with each other, or neither shows up, the race becomes a veritable mess. Whether both fry each other on the front end or not, #5 UNRIVALED (20/1) looms as one to use. No one in the field is a true pacesetter, but UNRIVALED is a true closer and if the speed gets nuts, he can mow them down in the lane. That's how he won last time at Parx in a maiden special weight there. While he's jumping class levels (both from maidens to winners and Parx to Aqueduct), he could be a usable type if you want to zag while everyone zigs with the popular horses in the book end posts.
Photo courtesy Nicolle Neulist.
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