Withers Diary: Derby Fever Begins

The Life

The Polar Vortex has made going outside unbearable here in New York City for the last few weeks, so I was a little nervous when I woke up this morning for Withers day at Aqueduct Race Course. Fortunately, Mother Nature appears to have Derby Fever much like the rest of us, because we were treated to a mild, sunny January day. Perfect! It was with a smile on my face that I got onto the subway to make my way to the Big A for a day at the races.

When I arrived, the place was jumping – I think a lot of New Yorkers were just so happy to be able to stand outside without risking windburn and frostbite, and what better way to spend the first nice afternoon of 2014 than by heading to the racetrack? 

There were plenty of people who opted to stay inside, too, and I took a few minutes to wander around the building to explore before the afternoon’s big races began. Aqueduct has a lot of hidden charms; for example, on the third floor there’s a wall of photos commemorating every winner of the Wood Memorial, the track’s signature race. 

Upon closer inspection, you can see old photos of some of horse racing’s most legendary names. For example, here’s the win photo from Seattle Slew’s Wood Memorial Victory:

Belmont Stakes winner (and Triple Crown spoiler) Easy Goer and 1999 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus are among Wood winners of yore; for a fan of Thoroughbred history like me, finding photos like these is a total joy. 

This year, the track has installed some seriously cool murals as well. Our New York City Ambassador Victoria Garofalo is going to take a closer look at them for you soon, but I couldn’t resist snapping a few photos of my favorite pieces:

After that, I decided to grab a quick snack before the day got completely busy; so I headed over to the first floor’s concession stand with the intention of getting a salad. $5 later I had the biggest, yummiest serving of onion rings ever. Whatever, they’re still a vegetable! And seriously, they’re going to be my new go-to food at Aqueduct – they’re perfectly done, piping hot, the serving is more than enough for lunch and the price is right.  Oh, and let’s face it: so much more delicious than a salad. Win. 

After downing my onion rings, it was time to boogie down to the paddock for the first stakes race of the afternoon: the Toboggan. This is a sprint race for horses three years of age and older travelling three quarters of a mile. The Toboggan had attracted six participants, and as the horses paraded around the walking ring racing fans lined the rails to pick out their favorite. 

They were in for a treat, too: there were some seriously beautiful horses turned out for the occasion, and the one who caught my eye is Praetereo. I’m an absolute sucker for a dapple gray, and he looked wonderful as he strode around the paddock. 

After admiring the horses, it was time for me to head up to the track to make sure I got a photo of the racing action.  When I arrived at the rail, I met up with Victoria Garofalo and her fellow New York-based ABR Ambassador Dan Tordjman who were also there to cover the race. I had to snap this photo of them – if you ever see any of us at the races or around town, please be sure to say ‘hi!’ We always love making friends with racing fans. 

After chatting with Victoria and Dan for a bit, it was time to focus up because the race was on and I needed to get to the finish line to make sure my trusty Nikon and I got my shot of the winner. As the horses swept to the wire it was Candyman E who had the sweetest day, scoring the win for owner Gold Square LLC and trainer David Jacobson with jockey Charles Lopez as the pilot.

Up next was the Busher Stakes, a 1 1/16 miles race for female horses three years old. Last year’s winner was Princess of Sylmar, who went on to win several major races including the Kentucky Oaks, so I was very eager to see these fillies compete. You could feel the excitement on the air as the seven horses surged out of the starting gate and into the first turn: 

And as the fillies came down the home stretch to the finish line, it was Joint Return all alone in front in a commanding performance. She’s definitely a horse to keep an eye on and she was clearly enjoying her win.

The next race was Correction Stakes, a ¾ mile test for fillies and mares (AKA female horses) aged three and up. As the horses were warming up before the race, I noticed this little lady, Masai, who just kind of moseyed over to the finish line and hung out there for a while as jockey Irad Ortiz gave her lots of pats on the neck. She was utterly calm, charming and adorable, and I fell in love with her a little bit right then. The good news is that she would end up being third in the Correction Stakes, so her slightly abnormal pre-race ritual clearly works for her!

However, it was Lion D N A and Delightful Quality who would battle it out for victory, treating fans to a thrilling battle to the finish line with Lion D N A (on the inside) holding on to win. 

Then, it was time for the biggest race of the day. The Withers Stakes is an official Kentucky Derby prep race, and points were on the line to help horses qualify for the Run for the Roses. As the contenders made their way to the racetrack, I once again took the time to admire just how beautiful these animals are.

After the six three-year-olds warmed up (well, as best they could in the rapidly cooling afternoon!) it was time for the race to begin. All six entered the starting gate, and there was a roar from the crowd as the bell rang and the gates sprung open.

I always love the thrill of watching the horses thunder down the stretch for the first time as they approach the first turn of the race. There’s a weird blend of speed and possibility coupled with the anticipation of finding out how the race will unfold less than two minutes later.

And racing fans at Aqueduct were in for a treat today: the Withers yielded a stretch-long battle to the wire between Samraat and Uncle Sigh, with the former finally shaking loose right before the finish line to win by a length. 

Both horses put in tremendous performances, and both will be ones to keep an eye on as we continue down 2014’s Triple Crown trail. Uncle Sigh’s groom was clearly proud of his colt’s valiant effort in the race, and gave his charge a comforting pat on the nose as soon as they were reunited. 

And winner Samraat’s connections were clearly thrilled with their colt as they lead him to the winner’s circle to celebrate their victory.

As for me? You can color me impressed with Samraat, too. And by “impressed” I pretty much mean I love him and want him to come move in with me and my cat.

That’s it for me for today; I’ll be back next week with all of the action out of Gulfstream Park for the Donn Handicap. Thanks for stopping by, and let me know what you thought of the Withers in the comments!

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