NEW YORK — When El Areeb romped by 11 ¼ lengths in the Jerome Stakes at muddy Aqueduct on Jan. 2, trainer Cathal Lynch was careful not to mention the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
He still was doing what he could to avoid referring to roses after his maturing colt took another Derby prep with an impressive 4 ¼-length victory in the $250,000 Withers Stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct.
“I’m still reluctant,” he said. “Just superstitious.”
Lynch’s only reference to the first Saturday in May came when he noted the points system employed by Churchill Downs to determine the 20-horse Derby field. El Areeb took a major step toward the starting gate for the run for the roses with his handy performance in the 1 1/16-mile Withers. The Grade 3 contest was worth 10 points to the winner.
Second-place True Timber received four points for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Third place was worth two points for J Boys Echo, a Dale Romans trainee. Bonus Points, from Todd Pletcher’s barn, earned one point for fourth.
As eye-catching as the 1-mile, 70-yard Jerome was, there were aspects to the Withers that were even more encouraging to El Areeb’s connections. He was essentially push button for jockey Trevor McCarthy when the rider decided to bide his time behind front-running True Timber and Jaime’s Angel.
“For him to turn off today, that’s what I love about him,” McCarthy said. “As soon as you settle your hands on him, he turns off for you. When you pick your hands up, he’s ready to go again. He’s a really impressive horse.”
The gray or roan son of Exchange Rate, a $340,000 purchase as a 2-year-old in training, swept his fourth consecutive start, with those wins combing by a combined 29 lengths. His streak began when he earned his first career victory by 8 ¾ lengths last Oct. 15 at Laurel Park.
El Areeb – “skillful” or “helpful” in Arabic – completed the 1 1/16-mile Withers in 1:44.47 on a fast track, showing his Jerome was hardly a product of the mud. The winner’s $150,000 share of the purse hiked his earnings to $334,200.
“I think he prefers this surface over a muddy track,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy sat a confident third as True Timber, despite a faltering start, took the field of 10 through an opening quarter-mile in 24.29 seconds, a half-mile in 49.31 and three-quarters of a mile in 1:14.06. El Areeb needed minimal urging to close ground around the final turn. And then it was essentially over.
“When I pushed the button,” McCarthy said, “he sure exploded.”
Through six starts, El Areeb has shown no distance limitations.
“He seemed to keep going and galloped out super for me,” McCarthy said. “He seems like a horse who can do whatever he wants.”
Lynch intends to keep his streaking 3-year-old on the New York road to the Derby. His biggest decision involves whether to skip the Gotham Stakes on March 4 in order to freshen for what would be a huge test in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct on April 8.
“If we’re going to take a shot at these other three things [Triple Crown races], it would probably be nice to take a little break before we do,” Lynch said.
And that was as close as he came to referring to the Kentucky Derby, the race he almost dares not to dream of.