We are back on the Kentucky Derby trail this week as we venture to Aqueduct for the 1-1/8 mile G3 Withers Stakes. The race will be contested around 2 turns over Aqueduct’s dirt course. In addition to the $250,000 purse, there will be Kentucky Derby points available to the top four finishers (10-4-2-1).
A small field of 6 will head to the gate, with 3 of the starters trained by Todd Pletcher. Pletcher will saddle #2, Marconi (3-1 m/l), #3, Bal Harbour (6/1), and #5, Coltandmississippi (12/1). It’s interesting to note that while Pletcher trains half of the field, he does not have the morning line favorite or second choice. Those honors belong to Kiaran McLaughlin who will saddle 8/5 early favorite Avery Island, and Jason Servis with 9/5 second choice Firenze Fire.
9 furlong races at Aqueduct have been producing wire-to-wire winners at a 36% clip (5 of 14) with inside horses seeming to have a slight advantage. However, with a field of only 6, I will play to the front end but will view the post positions equally.
The pace of the race should be dictated from the outside by #6, California Night, with Avery Island, Coltandmississippi, and Marconi just behind. Settling back early will be Firenze Fire and Bal Harbour. This presents a precarious pace scenario where California Night should be loose on the lead. This colt, making his 2nd lifetime start, wired a MSW filed at 6.5 furlongs while posting impressive first time starter early speed figures.
The top 2 m/l choices will be coming at him from different spots. Avery Island will try to be up close but his early speed figures are suspect and he has not proven that he can pass a horse in the lane. Meanwhile, Firenze Fire will be coming from the back of this field, just like he prefers. He won the G1 Champaign Stakes at Belmont last October coming from 10th versus a hot pace, followed that up with a disappointing effort in the G1 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile, and then with a win in his 2018 bow in the non-graded Jerome here at Aqueduct. The Jerome win was more impressive than it may seem in that he closed from last, in the slop, and against a slow pace. According to Trakus, he traveled 31 feet farther than the second place horse. Breaking from the rail, he should save all the ground this week, so Firenze Fire looks like the horse to beat.
The horse I landed on to give Firenze Fire a run for his money is the front-running California Night. This Mike Maker trainee should have the ability to get to the top and control the pace. I also look for him to take a step forward in his 2nd career race. His workout tab is sharp and it is following the same sequence as it did prior to that maiden win by posting a blowout bullet, followed by a couple of jogs around the track. My only question is if he can handle the 2 turns and the mile and an eighth. The average winning distance of his sire’s progeny is 7 furlongs, which is on the low end for this field, but I will hope he gets an easy lead and conserves some energy for the lane. If he doesn’t, he will just have to watch as Firenze Fire scoots on by.
When torn between a favorite and a longshot, I will always look for a price, so this week’s bet will be an exacta box with Firenze Fire and California Night.