Stakes Preview: On the Triple Crown Trail, The Withers is El Areeb’s race to lose


>Go to the PPs for The Withers | Post Time 4:20 EST Saturday

New York’s path to the first Saturday in May continues with the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers. It serves as the follow-up to last month’s Jerome and leads directly into the final two preps in this series, the Gotham and Wood Memorial.

The storyline heading into this race obviously centers on the Jerome winner, El Areeb, who will attempt to prove his 11-length victory in that race was not merely a product of a muddy, sealed racetrack. One thing he may have in his favor is the pace. Given a lack of confirmed frontrunners in this Withers, the TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting a situation that should favor the early leader – forecast to be El Areeb (#4).



Once past the favorite, the rest of the field is largely composed of unproven runners, none of whom has won a stakes, with many having yet to progress past their maiden victories. That said, there are certainly some lightly raced participants who still have plenty of upside. However, they will have to improve quite a ways to erase the sizable chasm between El Areeb and everyone else.

Let’s go through the entire field:

#1, TRUE TIMBER (8-1): Considering it was his first start beyond six furlongs, this son of Mineshaft put in a decent effort in the Jerome but was still no match for El Areeb. Prior to that, he was the beneficiary of a very fast pace (color-coded in red in TimeformUS PPs) when he rallied to break his maiden in December. Kiaran McLaughlin certainly knows how to get horses ready to win these Derby preps, but I’m inclined to take a stand against the horses that lost to El Areeb in the Jerome and look to new faces this time.

#2, APARTFROMTHECROWD (5-1): One of the more intriguing new players is this Chad Brown trainee. After starting his career on turf, his connections quickly found out that he’s just as effective over the main track when his second start was rained off the grass. Apartfromthecrowd overcome some minor traffic trouble that day to finish third. He followed that performance with a professional effort to easily break his maiden going two turns.



However, it must be noted that Jan. 14 was a day that was strongly favoring horses that raced along the rail, especially through the first half of the card. Apartfromthecrowd was able to save ground every step of the way and may not have actually run any better than the runner-up in that race, who had to overcome a wide trip. Nevertheless, he’s moving in the right direction and can’t be dismissed from trifecta consideration. 

#3, JAIME’S ANGEL (50-1): He improved when stretched out in distance last time, but it’s quite a jump to go from a New York-bred maiden win directly into graded stakes company. He’s an outsider here. 

#4, EL AREEB (6-5): It’s hard to find any real negatives with this horse. He grabbed everyone’s attention with his muddy track win in the Jerome, in which he earned an eye-opening 120 TimeformUS Speed Figure. Yet it’s not as if his prior races gave no indications that such a performance could have been forthcoming. After all, he earned a field-best 94 Beyer – and 109 TimeformUS figure – for his visually impressive score in the James F. Lewis two back, and had broken his maiden in similarly fast time in the start before that. Notably, both of those races came over fast tracks.



The Pace Projector indicates that he’s significantly faster than his rivals in the early stages of this race. He was able to effectively use stalking tactics in the Jerome, but Trevor McCarthy may feel confident enough to send him directly to the lead this time. And he should be confident. Simply put, horses that come into races owning speed-figure advantages of greater than 10 points over their rivals are supposed to be heavy favorites. I’m not trying to beat this one. 

#5, BONUS POINTS (12-1): As previously mentioned in regard to True Timber, I generally don’t want the horses that finished behind El Areeb in the Jerome. This colt encountered some minor traffic trouble on the turn, but really couldn’t muster much of a finish when he got clear at the quarter pole, barely separating himself from the inexperienced True Timber late. I suppose he could get a piece of the purse once again, but he’s on the slow side and other runners have more room for improvement. 

#6, FILLET OF SOLE (10-1): Of the Todd Pletcher duo, I much prefer this son of Union Rags. This colt has always hinted that he would have more to offer as the distances got longer. He ran deceptively well in each of his two starts sprinting last summer. He was plagued by greenness in July at Belmont before getting squeezed back at the start at Saratoga. He finished well on both occasions, but simply ran out of ground.



At first glance, his desperate win by a nose at Parx Racing might seem disappointing, especially considering that he was the 1-5 favorite. However, the horse that he beat, Curtis, actually has some ability, which he’s proven in subsequent starts. In fact, one could argue that Curtis is hardly any less talented than any of the foes Apartfromthecrowd defeated in his last start in New York. Fillet of Sole showed a lot of grit in grinding out that win and I think he’s improving at the right time. Todd Pletcher knows how to win in these situations. (DRF Formulator Fact: Todd Pletcher is 5 for 17 with a $2.98 ROI when last-out maiden winners are stepped up into graded stakes for 3-year-olds on the dirt.) 

#7, ALWAYS A SUSPECT (20-1): He lost one of the weakest stakes that’s been run in New York all year when getting run down in the Lost in the Fog, and I see no indication that he’s supposed to improve with distance. He’s a potential pace factor, but that’s about it. 

#8, SMALL BEAR (30-1): I wish this gelding’s last two races had come up just a bit faster, because I like everything else about him. He’s been quite professional in his starts around two turns and he possesses the tactical speed necessary to stay relatively close to the pace. Unfortunately, he had to work too hard to beat a dreadful field at Parx last time and I just think he’s a cut below the top contenders here.

#9, SQUARE SHOOTER (12-1): This undefeated son of Trappe Shot will attempt to stretch out around two turns for the first time. His dam was a route winner and Trappe Shot has actually been a decent stamina influence as a sire, winning with 23 percent of his dirt routers – easily better than every other sire in this race. The main questions that this horse has to answer are those of class and ability. He did not beat the strongest field at Parx last time and must improve off that effort. I’d actually argue that the runner Fillet of Sole beat in his maiden win is better than the horses Square Shooter encountered in either of his wins.

#10, J BOYS ECHO (4-1): There’s much to like about the way this colt began his career. He was a fast-closing second in his debut after overcoming a poor break, and then adapted seamlessly to new circumstances when he was immediately stretched out around two turns in his following start. He did have a scary moment at the top of the stretch in that maiden win when a rival pushed him into the rail and he almost clipped heels. However, he quickly recovered and went to register a decisive victory. His connections took a shot in the Delta Jackpot, but little went right in terms of the trip that day. He was very wide around both turns and just seemed to lose interest midway through the race. It’s good to see him reunited with Robby Albarado and I’m more than willing to give him a second chance here.


El Areeb (#4) is a very likely winner of this race, and it would be foolish of me to characterize it any other way. However, he is going to be a significantly shorter price than he was when he won the Jerome, so there’s no value in betting him to win. Therefore, I’ll primarily focus on the two rivals that I think have the best chance of getting into the exacta, and they are Fillet of Sole (#6) and J Boys Echo (#10). I’ll primarily use them underneath in exotics, but I will also make a small backup win bet on the longer price of the two, Fillet of Sole, if he goes off at odds of around 10-1.

Win/Place: 6

Exacta Box: 4,6,10

Trifecta: 4 with 6,10 with 1,2,5,6,10

Trifecta: 4 with 1,2,5 with 6,10

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