Saturday is a big day on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, with three official Derby points races on the agenda. Perhaps the most intriguing from a wagering perspective is the $250,000, Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, which has attracted a field of 10 lightly raced 3-year-olds.
The favorite undoubtedly will be #4 El Areeb, who has won three straight races with impressive ease. After winning a maiden race at Laurel Park by 8 ¾ lengths, El Areeb contested the James F. Lewis III Stakes at Laurel and won by 5 ¼ lengths in the fast time of 1:09.96 for three-quarters of a mile. Finishing behind him was a colt named High Roller, who came back to win the Frank Whiteley Jr. Stakes on Jan. 21.
El Areeb’s first race around two turns came in the Grade 3 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, held at a distance just 40 yards shorter than the Withers. Racing on a muddy track that was playing incredibly slow, El Areeb settled just off the early lead, took command rounding the final turn and pulled away effortlessly to win by 11 ¼ lengths, earning an impressive 91 Beyer Speed Figure.
With his speed and proven ability at Aqueduct, El Areeb should be tough to beat in the Withers Stakes. The problem is that his obvious credentials will lead to a very short price — he might even be an odds-on favorite, meaning that a $2 win bet will return less than $4. Therefore, we’ll try to boost the potential payoff by playing him in the exacta with just a couple of other horses.
In my opinion, the most likely candidate to finish second (or pull off the upset if El Areeb doesn’t bring his “A” game) is #10 J Boys Echo. Trained by Dale Romans, J Boys Echo caught my eye when he won a two-turn maiden race at Keeneland Race Course last October. Turning for home, he was severely jostled in traffic and had to check, losing his momentum, but J Boys Echo shrugged off this obstacle like it was nothing, shifting course and bursting through an opening on the rail to win by 5 ½ lengths.
In his only start since then, J Boys Echo endured another troubled trip in the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes. He went wide around the first turn while tracking a solid pace, then found himself in between and behind horses and got shuffled back during a key point in the race, losing a lot of ground around the final turn. When he finally got clear of traffic, it was much too late to do any good, but J Boys Echo did re-rally mildly to finish fourth, beaten only a half-length for third.
Since that race, J Boys Echo has turned in an impressive series of workouts at Gulfstream Park, including five-eighths of a mile in :59.69 on Jan. 14. The trip up the East Coast to Aqueduct is a small concern, but J Boys Echo has already run well at three different tracks and hopefully will handle Aqueduct just fine. With a better trip on Saturday, I think J Boys Echo will give a very good account of himself in the Withers.
I also wouldn’t underestimate the chances of #1 True Timber. Although he could only produce a third-place finish in the Jerome Stakes, he figures to get a great, ground-saving trip in the Withers. The inner track at Aqueduct has generally favored horses racing on the rail this winter, and jockey Kendrick Carmouche has been taking advantage, keeping his horses close to the rail whenever possible. If the bias continues on Saturday, True Timber could have a chance to ride the rail all the way to a top-three finish.
Wagering Strategy A (If you think El Areeb is unbeatable)
$13 exacta 4 with 10 ($13)
$7 exacta 4 with 1 ($7)
Wagering Strategy B (Cover for the possibility that El Areeb finishes second)
$9 exacta 4 with 10 ($9)
$5 exacta 4 with 1 ($5)
$3 exacta 1,10 with 4 ($6)
Good luck, and enjoy the race!