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Withers Stakes 2024 | Aqueduct Picks [Kentucky Derby]
Mission Beach (Jason Moran/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM)

Withers Stakes 2024 | Aqueduct Picks [Kentucky Derby]

Aaron previews the 2024 Withers Stakes (G3) from Aqueduct, then gives his top picks from this Kentucky Derby (G1) prep race.

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The press release:

Albaugh Family Stables’ Lightline will make his stakes debut as he takes his first step on the Kentucky Derby trail in Saturday’s Grade 3, $250,000 Withers, a nine-furlong test for sophomores, at Aqueduct Racetrack.

The Withers is slated as Race 9 on Saturday’s 10-race card which also features the Grade 3, $175,000 Toboggan in Race 8. First post is 11:50 a.m. Eastern.

The Withers, a prep race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, will award the top-five finishers 20-10-6-4-2 qualifying points, respectively, towards the prestigious Grade 1 test on May 4 at Churchill Downs.

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Trained by Brad Cox, Lightline will visit his fourth track in as many starts after graduating by 13 3/4-lengths on debut in September traveling a two-turn mile at Horseshoe Indianapolis. The City of Light bay followed with a runner-up effort in a 1 1/16-mile optional-claimer in October at Keeneland, finishing 5 3/4-lengths back of Stretch Ride, who exited that race to finish third in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs.

Lightline, out of the multiple Grade 3-winning Maria’s Mon mare Upperline, enters from a deep-closing second in a one-mile optional-claiming event on New Year’s Eve at Oaklawn Park.

With Flavien Prat aboard, Lightline saved ground from last-of-12 as the favored Carbone dictated terms through splits of 23.40 seconds, 47.76 and 1:13.04 over the fast main track. Lightline advanced outside rivals approaching the final turn and loomed large from third position, but had to settle for second as Carbone secured a four-length score in a final time of 1:38.63 in a two-turn race that ended at the sixteenth pole. The undefeated Carbone is entered in Saturday’s Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn.

Lightline has breezed back twice over the Fair Grounds dirt including a five-eighths breeze in 1:02 flat Monday.

“I’m happy with what we’ve seen from him to start his career. He ran a good race at Oaklawn last time and maybe got a little far back. It’s a short stretch in a mile race,” said Cox, who won four stakes in January at the Big A. “He kind of didn’t get as involved as we thought, but at the end of the day, I thought he got a lot out of it and it sets him up well for the Withers.”

Cox initially targeted this event with the now-injured Jerome-winner Drum Roll Please, but said Lightline, a $600,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase, should appreciate the added distance.

“He’s a real good-looking physical, great-looking horse. He was an expensive yearling and he’s a steady work horse,” Cox said. “I think he’s a horse that’s going to really take to a mile and an eighth or a mile and a quarter. He’s trained pretty steady down here at the Fair Grounds.”

Cox won this event last year with Hit Show, who went on to finish fifth in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.

Manny Franco, who guided Hit Show to victory last year, has the call aboard Lightline from post 3.

Barry Schwartz’s New York-homebred El Grande O [post 4, Kendrick Carmouche] will stretch out in distance following a pacesetting runner-up effort to Drum Roll Please last out in the one-turn mile Jerome on January 6 here.

El Grande O, by Take Charge Indy and out of the Unbridled’s Song mare Rainbow’s Song, is a half-brother to the graded stakes-placed Malibu Moon mare Meal Ticket. He posted frontrunning state-bred stakes scores on wet tracks here in the seven-furlong Bertram F. Bongard over sloppy and sealed footing in September and in the one-turn mile Sleepy Hollow in October over muddy and sealed going.

Last out, El Grande O stumbled at the start but recovered quickly to set the Jerome tempo under pressure from Regalo. He held a narrow advantage at the stretch call but could not stave off Drum Roll Please, who took command at the eighth pole and drew off to score by 3 3/4-lengths.

Trainer Linda Rice said she’s keen to see how El Grande O will perform in his first voyage around two turns.

“He’s training well and I think at the longer distances he will be on the lead,” said Rice, who won this event in 2020 with Max Player. “[The stumble in the Jerome] didn’t help, but obviously the winner was better than him on the day. He’s a young, improving horse and we’re anxious to try him two turns.”

Brad Grady and David Grund’s stakes winner Seminole Chief [post 5, Trevor McCarthy] returns to New York for the first time since an impressive maiden win in September at Finger Lakes.

Conditioned by Jack Sisterson, the Florida-bred Girvin colt out of the Dunkirk mare Secret Song, trained extensively at Saratoga Race Course before shipping to the Farmington, N.Y. oval and graduating at first asking in a five-furlong maiden special weight.

Seminole Chief made his next two outings at Gulfstream Park, posting an off-the-board effort sprinting seven furlongs in the FTBOA Florida Sire Affirmed before adding blinkers and jockey Paco Lopez to win the 1 1/16-mile FTBOA Florida Sire In Reality at odds of 12-1 over next-out maiden claiming winner Secret Lover.

“He’s a grinding type and with the addition of blinkers and an aggressive ride by Paco, it helped him get comfortable. They went quick enough on the lead,” Sisterson said. “He’s still learning – he didn’t switch leads, although he switched leads perfectly in the morning. He needs to figure that out in the afternoon to move forward again.”

Sisterson said Seminole Chief should also perform well with added ground.

“We always thought he would be a better horse going two turns,” Sisterson said. “He’s well balanced, good bone and very strong. He’s a horse you like in the barn because you think he’s only going to get better as he gets older. He loves to train and he’s got a great foundation. He’s not one of those types you have to be light on him because you worry physically about how he’s built. I’d like to have 10 like him.”

Seminole Chief, bred by Brad and Misty Grady, was purchased for $80,000 at the OBS June 2-Year-Old Horses of Racing Age Sale. He has banked $195,960 through a 3-2-0-0 record.

Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, a three-time Withers winner, will saddle a pair of contenders in maiden winners Khanate [post 9, Eric Cancel] and Speed Runner [post 1, Jose Lezcano].

Calumet Farm’s Khanate, a $35,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase, graduated at third asking in a seven-furlong restricted maiden special weight in October at Keeneland.

He followed with a sixth-place effort traveling 1 1/16-miles in November at Churchill ahead of a distant third-place finish last out in the Jerome after stumbling at the break before attending the pace.

The Hightail colt, out of the stakes-winning Any Given Saturday mare Mongolian Shopper, has banked $62,820 through a 5-1-0-1 record.

Whisper Hill Farm’s Kentucky homebred Speed Runner has made both career starts at the Big A, finishing third in a seven-furlong sprint in October won by Saturday’s Grade 3 Swale hopeful Billal ahead of a narrow neck score in December when prompting the pace in a nine-furlong maiden special weight.

The Gun Runner colt, a half-brother to Grade 1-winner Brilliant Speed and graded stakes-placed Souper Speedy, is out of the Gone West mare Speed Succeeds, who is a half-sister to graded stakes-winner Serenading and multiple graded stakes-placed Handpainted.

His third dam, Passing Mood – a daughter of Canadian Hall of Famer Cool Mood – produced 1997 Grade 1 Belmont Stakes-winner Touch Gold.

Mission Beach [post 7, Dylan Davis] will look to parlay an optional-claiming score at Laurel Park into black type at the Big A for trainer Brittany Russell.

The Curlin colt, a $400,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase, made his first three starts for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert that included a first-out graduation in August at Del Mar ahead of a pace-pressing fifth in the Spa’s Grade 1 Hopeful in September. He faded to last-of-4 in the Grade 3 Bob Hope in November at Del Mar in his final outing for Baffert.

Mission Beach, who scratched out of last weekend’s Spectacular Bid at Laurel Park, enters from an impressive 1 3/4-length score in a six-furlong sprint at Laurel. With Sheldon Russell up from the inside post, Mission Beach saved ground in fifth in the six-horse field. He rode the rail through the turn before tipping out and advancing between rivals to secure the win and garner a career-best 73 Beyer Speed Figure.

Owned by SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Dianne Bashor, Robert E. Masterson, Waves Edge Capital, Catherine Donovan and Tom Ryan, Mission Beach is out of the stakes-winning Flatter mare Stoweshoe, who is a full-sister to multiple graded stakes-winning millionaire Taris.

Rounding out a talented field are Pennsylvania-bred stakes-winner Uncle Heavy [post 8, Mychel Sanchez] for trainer Butch Reid, Jr.; maiden winner Deposition [post 2, Dexter Haddock], who adds blinkers for owner-trainer Uriah St. Lewis; and maiden Society Man [post 6, Isaac Castillo] for trainer and co-owner Danny Gargan.