Withers Wagering: Derby Prep at Big A Offers Options Galore; Odds, Picks

Saturday will be a busy afternoon for 3-year-olds harboring Kentucky Derby (G1) aspirations with important stakes races on tap in Florida, Arkansas, California and New York.

While the $250,000 Withers (G3) at Aqueduct will be overshadowed by the others, it will offer the biggest handicapping challenge.

The 1 1/8-mile contest attracted a well-matched field of nine, lured by 20 valuable Derby qualifying points to the winner.

With many of the high-profile New York runners wintering in warmer climes, Aqueduct stakes take on a decidedly Mid-Atlantic feel this time of year.

Trainer Butch Reid ships up from Parx with Uncle Heavy, winner of the Wait For It Pennsylvania-bred stakes in late December. Uriah St Lewis, another Parx conditioner, sends out longshot Deposition.

The most intriguing horse from the region is Mission Beach for trainer Brittany Russell, fresh from a record-setting year in Maryland.

Russell closed out December as the first woman to top the state’s annual training standings, no mean feat considering she dethroned perennial kingpin Claudio Gonzalez.

Mission Beach will be Russell’s second crack at the 2024 New York road to the Triple Crown following Regalo’s fourth place finish in the Jerome Stakes on Jan. 6.

This time, Russell has a more viable contender.

Mission Beach started his career in Bob Baffert’s barn, running three times last year. He won his debut at Del Mar, which earned him a trip to Saratoga where he battled for the lead before finishing fifth in the Hopeful (G1). Then it was back to Del Mar where he tired badly in the Bob Hope (G3).

Then came the trainer change to Russell. The colt responded positively to the new environment, winning a late December allowance race at Laurel with Sheldon Russell, Brittany’s husband, aboard.

Now it’s back to stakes action with Dylan Davis in the saddle this time.

Some handicappers will negatively circle the fact that Mission Beach has never run more than 7 furlongs. True enough, but that should not be a disqualifier. The son of Curlin is bred to go a distance, and this is an ideal spot to stretch out.

The role of likely favorite goes to Lightline, shipping in from New Orleans for trainer Brad Cox. The colt has the look of a deep closer who might find himself too far back on too little racetrack.

“I think he’s a horse that’s going to really take to a mile-and-an-eighth or a mile-and-a-quarter,” Cox said. “He’s trained pretty steady down here at the Fair Grounds.”

Cox won last year’s Withers with Hit Show, who went on to finish fifth in the Kentucky Derby.

Todd Pletcher, a three-time Withers winner, sends out a pair from his second string in Speed Runner and Khanate.

El Grande O, Seminole Chief and Society Man complete the field.

The picks: 1 Mission Beach 2 Lightline 3 El Grande O

The field for the $200,000 Withers (G3), from the rail out, with jockey, trainer, odds:

1 Speed Runner (Jose Lezcano, Todd Pletcher), 5-1

2 Deposition (Dexter Haddock, Uriah St. Louis), 50-1

3 Lightline (Manny Franco, Brad Cox), 8-5

4 El Grande O (Kendrick Carmouche, Linda Rice), 5-2

5 Seminole Chief (Trevor McCarthy, Jack Sisterson), 12-1

6 Society Man (Isaac Castillo, Danny Gargan), 20-1

7 Mission Beach (Dylan Davis, Brittany Russell), 6-1

8 Uncle Heavy (Mychel Sanchez, Butch Reid), 10-1

9 Khanate (Eric Cancel, Todd Pletcher), 15-1

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