At 1 1/8 miles around the Aqueduct oval, the Grade 3 Wither is the longest 3-year-old stakes to be so far run in 2020, making it a true test of stamina for these early season Derby prospects. A few have already successfully negotiated this trip, including morning line favorite Shotski, winner of last fall’s Grade 2 Remsen. He’s the horse to beat, but there are many other contenders to consider in what amounts to a wide open affair.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which should come as no surprise given the presence of a few sprinters stretching out for the first time. Monday Morning Qb (#2) has to be sent forward from the inside after contesting quick fractions in sprint races and he’s likely to be hounded early by fellow speeds New Commission (#4), Shotski (#5). It seems like a race that should set up for a closer to succeed and the two with the best TimeformUS Late Pace Ratings are Max Player (#3) and Portos (#8), who are both rated at 103.
The race goes through Shotski (#5), who would be pretty difficult for this group to handle if able to repeat the 111 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned when taking down the Remsen last time out. However, he had some factors working in his favor that day which may not be there to aid him on Saturday. The Aqueduct main track was unquestionably favoring forwardly-placed runners on Cigar Mile Saturday, and he took full advantage of that situation in leading the Remsen field throughout while setting fairly moderate early fractions. I’m not suggesting that the performance should be disregarded, but I don’t think he has quite the margin for error that his most recent effort might indicate. It also seems likely that the track profile helped him get the distance, so there’s still some doubt in my mind about whether he can negotiate this 9-furlong trip while sustaining early pressure.
Monday Morning Qb (#2) figures to be Shotski’s primary early foe, as he seemingly has one way to go from his inside post position. His pedigree is difficult to read, since he should get some stamina from his sire Imagining, a Grade 1 winner going 1 3/8 miles on turf. Yet his dam’s family is more sprint-oriented, leaving some questions about his ability to get the trip. Furthermore, he often neglects to change leads in the stretch, which doesn’t make for great optics. While he can get away with racing on his wrong lead for an entire sprint race, I wonder if that habit will catch up with him going this route distance.
Portos (#8) seems likely to attract his fair share of support given his ample experience going this distance. While it is impressive that he romped home to a 10-length victory and earned a stakes-quality 109 TimeformUS Speed Figure, it should also be noted that he was defeating an incredibly weak field over a sloppy, sealed track. It’s unclear how such a performance will translate to the Withers. Furthermore, he’s been successful when able to race up close to the pace in recent starts and he could find himself having to rally from much farther behind in this speed-laden field. I think he’s a major player, but I wouldn’t want to accept too short a price.
If I’m going to take a recent maiden winner in this Withers, I’d rather settle on MAX PLAYER (#3). This Linda Rice-trained 3-year-old has made both starts to date at Parx, which is an unusual move for this barn. However, Rice may have liked that venue for this horse since she got to run him around two turns each time. He was slow into stride first time out and lost contact with the field for much of the race. Yet he started to move on the turn under vigorous encouragement, ultimately gaining momentum in the stretch while falling just short of victory.
Rice applied blinkers for his second start and Max Player was somewhat more engaged in the early going. His rider still had to keep after him throughout the race, but the horse stayed in the bridle and was there to pounce when asked to reel in the leaders. Given the relentless encouragement that was applied by the rider in both starts, it was nice to see him finish strongly as if more distance will only help his cause. He obviously needs to run faster than his winning TimeformUS Speed Figure of 93, but it’s meaningful that he’s even been entered in this spot. Linda Rice is never one to get ambitious, often preferring to take the path of least resistance with promising runners like this. Therefore, her confidence in moving this colt directly into stakes company should be respected.
I wouldn’t totally discount Rice’s other entrant Prince of Pharoahs, but he also has some stamina questions to answer and it remains to be seen how he will adapt to the pace scenario of this race. I view him more as an exotics candidate.
Exacta Key Box: 3 with 2,5,6,8
Trifecta: 3 with 5,8 with 2,5,6,7,8