The Derby trail starts to crank up on Saturday as it winds from coast to coast with the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream, the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita and the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct. The Withers will be run at 1 1/8 miles and the other two preps at 1 1/16 miles with each race worth 10-4-2-1 Derby points to the top four finishers.
The three races will be run within 95 minutes of each other, 90 days out from the first Saturday in May. The Withers drew the biggest field of the three Derby preps this weekend, with eight entrants seeking valuable Derby qualifying points.
The last Holy Bull winner to win the Kentucky Derby was Barbaro in 2006, who swept the Florida prep races that year. The Holy Bull will have a heavy favorite in Tiz the Law (3-5) who has the same connections as 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide.
Last year’s Robert B. Lewis winner was Mucho Gusto, who collected the winner’s purse in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup last weekend at Gulfstream in his 4-year-old debut.
Here’s a look at the entries for the Withers (post position, horse, trainer, jockey, ML odds in parenthesis):
Race 8 – Aqueduct Racetrack, Post Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
1 – Mr. Shortandsimple (Rodriguez, Gutierrez, 30-1). This longshot is the son of Pioneerof the Nile, American Pharoah’s sire, but that’s where the comparison ends. The WinStar colt has spectacular breeding but his past performances don’t add up to him having a shot on Saturday. Pass.
2 – Monday Morning Qb (Reid, Vargas, 4-1). One couldn’t ask for a better hunch play on Super Bowl weekend, but this one looks legit. He ships in from the Mid-Atlantic with wins at Laurel and Parx under his belt to give the Big A his best shot. Breeding suggests he can go long, but this is his first try going two turns. Interesting at a price.
3 – Max Player (Rice, Davis, 9-2). This lightly raced Honor Code colt broke his maiden last out and steps right into the fray in a graded stake with Derby points on the line. His maiden breaker was in the slop at Parx, which looks to be his cup of tea. The second-place finisher in that race came back to win, so he can’t be discounted. If it’s wet, he will move up.
4 – New Commission (Day, Adorno, 15-1). Finished just three-quarters of a length behind MMQB at Laurel last out and he’s over three times the price. He’s moved forward in each of his last two races and who’s to say he won’t on Saturday. Has posted some solid workouts. He’s the longshot play.
5 – Shotski (O’Dwyer, Saez, 2-1). The morning line favorite and Grade 2 Remsen winner looks to be the one to beat. Will likely have the Bills Mafia tailgate brigade in his corner based on his moniker. The son of Blame has Luis Saez aboard and his Tomlinson figures blow away most of the field. He will be the shortest price in the field at post time as he looks to add to his 10-point tally on the Kentucky Derby point leaderboard. The one to beat.
6 – Prince of Pharoahs (Rice, Carmouche, 8-1). Guaranteed to take money based on his lineage. The son of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah ran well in the Jerome against highly regarded Independence Hall and has three Derby points to his credit after dead heating for second. Looking for a big move forward for the Prince. Dangerous.
7 – Vanzzy (Pino, Alvarado, 8-1). Winner of the 2019 Display Stakes on the Tapeta at Woodbine, a race won the prior year by Belmont Stakes winner Sir Winston. The son of Verrazano returns to dirt, where he hasn’t fared as well to take on this feisty group of sophomores. He adds to the amount of speed in the race. On the fence.
8 – Portos (Pletcher, Lezcano, 3-1). Won by a pole in breaking his maiden in his fourth try on New Year’s Eve at Aqueduct. Aside from the favorite, the only horse to run at the 9-furlong distance and he’s done it three times. His late closing style seems to fit with the amount of speed in the race. Pletcher loves the Derby trail and this one will get him started with a bang.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Portos; 2 – Shotski; 3 – Prince of Pharoahs; 4 – New Commission
Race 8 – Gulfstream Park; Post Time 5:04 p.m. ET
The Holy Bull drew a field of seven colts trying to obtain those valuable Derby points at Gulfstream in South Florida. The morning line favorite Tiz the Law (3-5) lost a shot at the 2-year-old Eclipse with his disappointing third-place finish at Churchill in November in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Manny Franco will be in the irons for Barclay Tagg aboard the Constitution colt. He will be the overwhelming favorite but faces a legitimate challenge from the Chad Brown-trained Toledo (7-2), who hasn’t missed the exacta in three career races. The Midshipman colt Relentless Dancer (8-1) has won two straight over 20 lengths combined.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Relentless Dancer; 2 – Tiz the Law; 3 – Toledo; 4 – Mayberry Deputy
Race 6 – Santa Anita Park; Post Time: 6 p.m. ET
The Great Race Place is the final stop of the day for the Derby trail, with the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on tap. A small field of six challengers for the Derby points will approach the gate in Southern California. It’s no surprise that Bob Baffert has the favorite and second choice on the morning line in the race. Thousand Words (4-5), the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity winner, along with barn mate High Velocity (3-1) are the only graded stakes winners in the field. Richard Mandella will challenge the Baffert duo with co-second choice Tizamagician (3-1), a Tiznow colt out of a Dixie Union mare. Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza will be in the irons for the seventh straight time after finally breaking his maiden last out.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Thousand Words; 2 – High Velocity; 3 – Tizamagician; 4 – Encoder
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.