Aqueduct| Race 8 | Post Time 4:35 p.m. (ET) | Go to the TimeformUS PPs
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The Grade 3, $250,000 Withers will be run at 1 1/8 miles this year, since Aqueduct has done away with its inner dirt track and cannot conduct two-turn routes at shorter than 1 1/8 miles on the main oval. The extended distance of this race provides an early season opportunity to test the stamina of some key Kentucky Derby prospects as they seek to accumulate qualifying points for the first Saturday in May. Of the main contenders, two have already negotiated this demanding distance successfully – Avery Island and Marconi – whereas co-favorite Firenze Fire will be attempting to stretch out off a series of strong performances around one turn.
The Pace Projector is predicting that longshot California Night (#6), who comes into this race off a wire-to-wire win going six furlongs, will lead the field early. The only runners that seem to be remotely interested in pressing him are Avery Island (#4), who showed than he can be effective stalking the pace in last fall’s Remsen, and Coltandmississippi (#5), who has been more conservatively ridden in recent starts.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, FIRENZE FIRE (9-5): He is easily the most accomplished horse in the race, having won three stakes races, including last fall’s Grade 1 Champagne. That day, he defeated eventual Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic, as well as fellow top Derby prospect Enticed. Can he get back to that performance level here, and will it be necessary in this race?
Firenze Fire is going to have to put forth a stronger effort than he did when winning the Jerome just three weeks ago. The early pace of that race was very slow (indicated by blue color-coding in TimeformUS PPs), which compromised his ability to put forth a top performance. Manny Franco confidently rated him at the back of the pack and didn’t commence a rally until around the three-eighths pole. Yet once in the clear, he had to work awfully hard to reel in inferior rival Seven Trumpets.
Jason Servis does well with horses returning from short rest (100 TimeformUS Trainer Rating off 15-26 day layoffs), but I believe he’s going to need to get Firenze Fire to produce an effort closer to the one he put forth in the Champagne. This colt’s only attempt around two turns in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup was a disappointment, but I suppose you can give him the excuse of having to ship across the country at the end of a hard campaign. On the other hand, I do have concerns about him stretching out in distance. His sire, Poseidon’s Warrior, was strictly a sprinter and there doesn’t appear to be much stamina in his immediate female family. I think this is the day to take a shot against him.
#2, MARCONI (3-1): Classic pedigrees don’t get much more attractive than that of this $2 million colt. By top American sire Tapit, he is a half-brother to $5 million earner and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man. Marconi is obviously bred to run all day and Todd Pletcher is well aware of that, having bypassed many one-turn races in order to start his career going today’s nine-furlong distance last fall.
The major knock against this runner is his inexperience, since he’s been somewhat green in both starts. He seemed to have no clue what he was out there to do in his debut in November, as he broke slowly and lagged behind early before making a wide, inefficient late run while steering well clear of the other horses late in the race. Todd Pletcher wisely added blinkers for his next start, and he did run a discernibly more professional race. He again broke slowly, but this time he got himself back into the race early on the backstretch. In fact, he moved into contention so quickly that Javier Castellano had to slam on the brakes midway down the backside so that he wouldn’t run up on the heels of the leaders. Once steered into the clear for the stretch drive, he pulled clear with authority. He’s going to need to run a faster race here, since the 98 TimeformUS Speed Figure he earned for that maiden victory is 10 points slower than Firenze Fire’s best figure and 16 points slower than Avery Island’s best.
Every year, Pletcher has a handful of horses like this – those that win their maiden fairly late and need to be stepped right up into stakes company if they’re to have any chance of making the Kentucky Derby. According to DRF Formulator, over the past five years he is 3 for 15 with 3-year-old males making their first start against winners in graded stakes dirt routes. Interestingly, two of the three victors in that sample are past winners of the Withers (Revolutionary and Far From Over).
#3, BAL HARBOUR (6-1): Like Firenze Fire, he was a precocious 2-year-old that won early in his juvenile season racing over sprint distances. He handled the stretch-out to a mile late last year, but still must prove that he can be as effective going this longer distance around two turns. I find it doubtful given his pedigree. First Samurai is a dubious stamina influence, and his female family is littered with sprint influences. His dam herself was a six-furlong specialist who won a minor stakes going that distance. His best half-sibling, Charleymillionaire, was also best at sprint distances, placing in a pair of stakes races at six furlongs. I admire this colt’s consistency, but I think he’s in the wrong spot this time.
#4, AVERY ISLAND (8-5): It’s hard to fault this impressive son of Street Sense. After disappointing his supporters when surprisingly bet down to favoritism in his career debut at Saratoga last summer, he’s been a completely different horse since stretching out in distance. It’s true that he was able to take advantage of moderate paces over speed-favoring tracks in his maiden win and in the Nashua. However, he showed a new dimension last time out in the Remsen, rating off the pace before finishing well to be second behind impressive winner Catholic Boy.
That Remsen was a valuable learning experience for this colt. He at first appeared to be somewhat uncomfortable racing behind rivals when Joe Bravo initially reined him in to let the leaders go by early. However, as the race continued, he settled down and waited for Bravo’s cues. Obviously, no one was beating Catholic Boy that day, but I thought Avery Island did well to finish up as strongly as he did considering that he was stretching out to two turns for this first time. He’s been working steadily at Palm Meadows down in Florida and appears to be prepared to conquer this early season goal. With only one other speed to deal with – and a longshot at that – he figures to sit a perfect stalking trip. I’m not trying to beat him.
#5, COLTANDMISSISSIPPI (12-1): His rider made a tactical error in the Jerome. This horse showed in his debut victory at Saratoga that he possesses the speed to contest a legitimate early pace. Yet Trevor McCarthy seemed intent on rating this colt behind horses in the Jerome even after he outbroke the field. As it turned out, the pace was slow, and he ended up getting shuffled back to last midway through the race. I believe he’s better than that performance and I would expect Junior Alvarado to hustle him into a stalking position this time. On the other hand, he’s yet to run a particularly competitive speed figure and he’s stepping up in class off that loss last time. He’s one to consider on the bottom of trifecta wagers.
#6, CALIFORNIA NIGHT (15-1): It’s an awfully tall order for any horse to negotiate 1 1/8 miles off just a single start at six furlongs, and it’s even more daunting to make that leap while stepping up into graded stakes company. This horse earned a respectable speed figure in his debut, but there may not have been much quality in that race as runner-up Holland Park returned to run poorly when losing as an odds-on favorite next time out. Expect him to be in front early, but it’s doubtful he’ll be around at the finish.
I view Avery Island (#4) as a very likely winner of this race, given his progression as a 2-year-old and positive experience at this distance. As noted above, he figures to work out a perfect trip given the likely pace scenario in this race, whereas Firenze Fire and Marconi will be attempting to run him down in the stretch. Of that pair of challengers, I prefer Marconi. The Tapit colt appears to be capable of further improvement, but I’m wary of picking him on top at a relatively short price off such slow speed figures. I could bet Avery Island to win here if he goes off at his morning line odds of 8-5 or higher.
Exacta box: 2-4
Trifecta: 4 with 1, 2 with 1, 2, 3, 5