After visits to Gulfstream (for the Holy Bull and the Forward Gal) and Santa Anita (for the Robert B. Lewis), Picks and Ponderings heads to New York for a look at the Withers Stakes, Aqueduct's Derby prep for the weekend. Though the race only drew six horses to vie for shares of a $250,000 purse and Kentucky Derby points (10-4-2-1), the race drew a strong mix of proven runners and sophomores looking for their breakthroughs.
A New York fixture, the Withers Stakes has been run in since 1874 in honour of David D. Withers (1821-92), an early personage in American horse racing. An original investor in Monmouth Park, he was also the first president of the Board of Control, a forerunner to the Jockey Club. Inaugurated at Jerome Park, the race has also been run at Morris Park Racecourse, Jamaica Racetrack, Belmont Park, and most recently Aqueduct.
Historically a one-mile race, the Withers is one of the newest faces to the Kentucky Derby trail. It was only moved to February and stretched to a mile and a sixteenth in 2012; with the move to winter racing on the outer track at Aqueduct, this year's running of the Withers has been further extended to a mile and an eighth. Though no Withers winner since its move to earlier in the year has won the Kentucky Derby, there are still plenty of Derby winners in its history. That goes all the way back to the first Kentucky Derby winner, Aristides, who won the second edition of the Withers in 1875. A pair of Triple Crown winners, Sir Barton (1919) and Count Fleet (1943), won the Withers during their three-year-old years. Other Withers winners who may not have won the Kentucky Derby, but who made their marks on the sport and have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, include seminal sire Native Dancer (1953), the versatile Dr. Fager (1967), and fleet sprinter Housebuster (1990).
Race 8: Withers Stakes (G3), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 4:35pm EST
Make no mistake about it: FIRENZE FIRE ran a big one in the Jerome, and enters the Withers the one to beat. Though the half-length margin was not flashy, particularly for a 2/5 shot, consider the pace setup. Seven Trumpets crawled over the muddy track, uncontested on the front end, and FIRENZE FIRE still rallied to catch him. Here, he gets a dry track, and thanks to the presence of CALIFORNIA NIGHT, AVERY ISLAND, and COLTANDMISSISSIPPI, stands to get something a little more honest to chase. FIRENZE FIRE also should be sharper second off a layoff, a 23% win proposition for trainer Jason Servis. The jockey is the one question -- Trevor McCarthy rides, as Manuel Franco instead takes the call on MARCONI -- but between his class and the strength of his last race, FIRENZE FIRE burns with appeal in this spot.
Most likely to topple FIRENZE FIRE as the king of New York is classy AVERY ISLAND. The one who played when FIRENZE FIRE was away for Breeders' Cup and a short break, AVERY ISLAND is proven at Aqueduct, with a romping win in the Nashua (G2) last year followed by a second-place finish behind Catholic Boy in the Remsen (G2). His running style suits the short field well: forward, but able to stay engaged from just a bit back, a necessity with stretch-out sprinter CALIFORNIA NIGHT to the far outside. The humans are also a positive: AVERY ISLAND keeps Joe Bravo in the irons, a constant presence through all four of his starts, and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin knows how to have a horse ready after a two-month lay.
MARCONI is one of a trio from the barn of Todd Pletcher, with the others being BAL HARBOUR and COLTANDMISSISSIPPI. COLTANDMISSISSIPPI looks a bit over his head against this set; he has a bit of room to improve now that he'll catch a fast track again, but getting the job done against the foes he faces here looks like a bit too much to ask. BAL HARBOUR has been honest in a pair of starts at Gulfstream this winter, and would not be the biggest surprise, but the mile and an eighth is a question as is the affinity for Aqueduct, as he has not yet tried the course or distance. This space prefers MARCONI out of the Pletcher trio. MARCONI makes his first start against winners in the Withers. He has made both of his starts going a mile and an eighth at the Big A, with a late-running second on debut and then an easy victory second out. Another reasonable step forward from that maiden win gets him close to what he needs here, and with a better start, he cold make that improvement. He lures Manuel Franco off of FIRENZE FIRE, as well -- interesting both because Franco is a solid Aqueduct rider, and because FIRENZE FIRE is the horse to beat here. Then again, that could be a wise long-term decision; as a Tapit half to Mucho Macho Man, MARCONI may only get better with age and distance.
#1 FIRENZE FIRE (9/5)
#4 AVERY ISLAND (8/5)
#2 MARCONI (3/1)
Longshot: Though the longshot writer rarely appears for a race with a six-horse field, they wanted to get a word in about #6 CALIFORNIA NIGHT (15/1). It would be a bit of a shock to see one of the top three selections not win. But? Speed in a short field can always be a danger, and CALIFORNIA NIGHT looks the speed in this field of six. He wired a maiden special weight sprint on debut, and though he loses rider Kendrick Carmouche to BAL HARBOUR, CALIFORNIA NIGHT does get a solid front-end rider to replace him, Rafael Hernandez. Though AVERY ISLAND and COLTANDMISSISSIPPI have shown some speed, it's not the same kind of sprint speed that CALIFORNIA NIGHT showed on debut. If he gets it easy up front or the track is playing particularly kindly to speed, the son of Midnight Lute gets dangerous.
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