Godolphin Racing's homebred Avery Island will return to the site of his biggest races to date as he makes his 3-year-old debut on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack in the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers at 1 1/8 miles.
The Withers, which is followed by the Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham on March 10 and the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 7 for sophomores eyeing the Kentucky Derby, is worth 10 points to the winner as a designated race in the Kentucky Derby prep series. Four points will be awarded to the runner-up, with two points and one point going to the respective third- and fourth-place finishers.
The Withers will also be part of the new, national live broadcast, FOX Sports Saturday At The Races on FS2 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. ET, which will also feature the Grade 2 Holy Bull, Grade 2 Forward Gal, and Grade 2 Dania Beach at Gulfstream Park.
Avery Island, by 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense and out of the A.P. Indy dam Kinda Spicy, broke his maiden in impressive fashion at second asking in September at Belmont Park and proved a tough competitor in the Grade 2 Nashua at a one-turn mile in November, dueling for the early lead to power home a 4 ¾-length winner in his first start at Aqueduct.
Trained by three-time Withers winner Kiaran McLaughlin, the colt stretched out to two turns in the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 Remsen on December 2, where he tracked the early pace and kicked on late to finish an encouraging second behind the late-running Catholic Boy. Avery Island picked up four qualifying points in the Remsen to the Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
“It was a good race for him to get educated,” McLaughlin said of the Remsen. “Catholic Boy ran a huge race that day but we took dirt and settled a little bit and put in a nice run to be second. We gave weight to everybody in the race and we have to do it again on Saturday. I don't necessarily like it, but it is what it is.”
Since the Remsen, Avery Island has been training at McLaughlin's winter base at Palm Meadows in South Florida, where he turned in his final breeze for the Withers, covering five furlongs in 1:00.75 on Saturday. He arrived at Belmont on Tuesday afternoon and galloped over the training track Wednesday morning.
“He had a smooth trip. He trained this morning and all systems are go,” added McLaughlin, who won the Withers with Divine Park (2007), Mr. Fantasy (2009), and Alpha (2012). “He's doing great. We feel like he's improving all the time and he likes the track there, he's been first and second on it in two stakes, so we're feeling good about Saturday. He's ready and we know he wants the distance, so it's all a plus. We wouldn't trade places with anybody.”
Joe Bravo, who has ridden the colt in all four career starts, has the return call. The pair will break from post position 4.
Trainer Todd Pletcher will be represented by a formidable trio of runner in the Withers, led by talented maiden winner Marconi, owned by Bridlewood Farm, Mrs. John Magnier, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor.
The gray son of Tapit will be making his seasonal bow following a pair of races in his 2-year-old campaign. In his November unveiling, a 1 1/8-mile maiden special weight, Marconi was seven wide turning for home and got into gear late in the stretch to finish second to stablemate Biblical by 1 ¾ lengths.
Marconi, bought at auction for $2 million as a yearling, donned blinkers in his second start on December 15, also at 1 1/8 miles, where he picked up steam through the final turn and kicked clear to win by 5 ½ lengths as the 3-5 favorite.
“I think it was a combination of him starting to figure some things out from that first race and the addition of blinkers also helped,” said Pletcher, who won the Withers with Harlem Rocker (2008), Revolutionary (2013), and Far From Over (2015). “He's a stoutly-bred horse and he's shown some promise in his first two starts. We decided to keep him [in New York] because the distance seems to suit him well and we're hoping he continues in his development.”
Marconi will be ridden by Manny Franco from post 2.
Red Oak Stable's two-time stakes winner Bal Harbour shipped from Pletcher's barn at Palm Beach Downs in Florida for the Withers following his troubled runner-up finish to Mask in the Mucho Macho Man on January 6 at Gulfstream. Prior to the Mucho Macho Man, the homebred chestnut colt by First Samurai turned in back-to-back stakes wins in his 2-year-old season with a 1 ¼-length win in the Sapling around two turns at Monmouth Park in September and a neck victory in the Smooth Air on December 9 at Gulfstream.
“I thought he ran well [in the Mucho Macho Man],” said Pletcher. “He was second best on that day. He probably would've been closer with a little more contested pace up front, but I thought he showed some gameness to continue closing to finish second. Hopefully, that race brings him forward again. We feel like this is a good opportunity for him to see how he handles the added distance.”
Bal Harbour will have the services of Kendrick Carmouche from post 3.
Rounding out Pletcher's triumvirate is Coltandmississippi for Teresa Viola Racing and St. Elias Stable. A $400,000 weanling purchase, the Pioneerof the Nile colt will be making his second start at Aqueduct following a third-place finish in the Jerome over a muddy and sealed track on January 13, his third straight race breaking from the inside post.
Before the Jerome, Coltandmississippi closed out his 2-year-old year with a fifth-place finish in the Smooth Air over a sloppy and sealed track. In his only other stakes start, he was a troubled 10th in the Sapling.
“He's been continually drawing the one hole, which has been a little bit to his disadvantage, but it seemed like once he got in the clear [in the Jerome], he closed well,” said Pletcher. “We're looking forward to stretching him out to a mile and an eighth. His only other time around two turns was in the Sapling and he got in a ton of trouble at the start, and basically that was no real barometer on how he'll handle two turns, so we're hoping he'll step forward.”
Junior Alvarado has the mount aboard Coltandmississippi, who will leave from post 5.
The Withers will also feature the return of Grade 1 winner Firenze Fire, who ran down a pacesetting Seven Trumpets just in time to post a half-length victory in the Jerome for owner Mr. Amore Stable and trainer Jason Servis. As a 2-year-old, the son of Poseidon's Warrior won the Grade 3 Sanford at Saratoga Race Course and the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont. Following the Champagne, Firenze Fire tried two turns for the first time in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but failed to menace, finishing seventh.
Firenze Fire, currently second on the Derby leaderboard with 20 points, will be ridden by Trevor McCarthy from the inside post.
Also entered for the Withers is Three Diamonds Farm's California Night, who broke his maiden in debut by a front-running three lengths in a field of four for trainer Mike Maker on December 10. Rafael Hernandez will ride the Midnight Lute colt from post 6.
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