The Road to the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve continues on Saturday, Feb. 1, with three major prep races across the country, including the $250,000 Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct.
Held at a testing 1 1/8 miles, the Withers has attracted eight improving 3-year-olds with widely varying credentials. Some are proven stakes winners, others are recent maiden winners, and one is a former claiming race competitor taking a big step up in class.
Leading the field is #5 Shotski, gate-to-wire winner of the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes over this track and distance in December. Trained by Jeremiah O’Dwyer, this stoutly-bred son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame had previously finished a solid fourth in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, beaten less than a length for third place by future Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes winner Silver Prospector.
Shotski’s tactical speed is an asset, and his proven ability to handle 1 1/8 miles makes him the obvious choice to win. But in the Remsen, Shotski benefited from securing an uncontested lead over a speed-favoring track. There’s no guarantee he’ll enjoy a similarly favorable setup in the Withers; for starters, #2 Monday Morning Qb—speedy winner of the Heft Stakes at Laurel Park—figures to apply some early pressure. Two-time claiming winner #1 Mr. Shortandsimple and Display Stakes winner #7 Vanzzy also have the tactical speed to make things challenging for Shotski.
So the question is, do you want to play Shotski at a short price when he appears poised to face more challenging circumstances? He’s certainly capable of winning, but his odds are unlikely to be enticing.
Instead, I’m going to side with #8 Portos at a better expected price. Conditioned by three-time Withers-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, Portos ran well without winning in his first three starts, hitting the board every time while facing quality horses such as Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes winner Enforceable.
But Portos has shown steady improvement, slowly developing his tactical speed, and on Dec. 31 he broke through with a powerful maiden victory running 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. After tracking the early pace over a sloppy track, Portos seized command in the homestretch and pulled away to dominate by 10 3/4 lengths.
It appears as though Portos has turned a corner, making him a dangerous threat to Shotski. He’s already run three times at 1 1/8 miles and clearly relishes this distance, not surprising since he’s a stoutly-bred son of Tapit out of a Tiznow mare. Drawing the far outside post position should allow Portos to work out a clean trip stalking the pace under hot jockey Jose Lezcano, who has won at a striking 33% rate when teaming up with Pletcher over the last two months.
In short, there’s a lot to like about Portos. Assuming he starts at 3-1 or higher, I would be happy to bet him to win and call it a day. But just to cover for the possibility of a game runner-up effort, we’ll also key him in the exacta with Shotski and Monday Morning Qb. The latter fits well in terms of Beyer and Brisnet speed figures and has the pedigree to stretch out in distance for trainer Butch Reid, who saddled Maximus Mischief to win the 2018 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
Wagering Strategy on a $20 Budget
$8 to win on #8 Portos
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 8th race, $8 to win on 8
$2 exacta: 8 with 2,5 ($4)
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 8th race, $2 exacta 8 with 2,5
$4 exacta: 2,5 with 8 ($8)
What to say at the betting window: Aqueduct, 8th race, $4 exacta 2,5 with 8
Good luck, and enjoy the race!