Race Previews

Withers Stakes Preview: Avery Island Set for 2018 Debut

Avery Island winning the Grade 2 Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct (Chelsea Durand/NYRA)

The Grade 2 Nashua Stakes winner Avery Island returns to Aqueduct on Saturday to make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers at 1 1/8 miles. The Kentucky Derby prep race has drawn a stout field of six horses.

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has two Kentucky Derby hopefuls on the docket for Saturday, as Enticed runs in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. As for Avery Island, he stretched out to two turns in the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 Remsen Stakes on December 2, stalking the early pace before doing his best running late to finish an encouraging second behind the hard-closing Catholic Boy. The trip going that distance is sure to help him this race, as he and Marconi are the only horses that have gone this far.

“It was a good race for him to get educated,” McLaughlin said of the Remsen. “Catholic Boy ran a huge race that day, but we took dirt and settled a little bit and put in a nice run to be second. We gave weight to everybody in the race and we have to do it again on Saturday. I don’t necessarily like it, but it is what it is.

“He had a smooth trip (to Aqueduct from Florida, where he has been training),” added McLaughlin, who previously won the Withers with Divine Park (2007), Mr. Fantasy (2009), and Alpha (2012). “He’s doing great. We feel like he’s improving all the time and he likes the track there. He’s been first and second on it in two stakes, so we’re feeling good about Saturday. He’s ready and we know he wants the distance, so it’s all a plus. We wouldn’t trade places with anybody.”

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Trainer Todd Pletcher enters three in the race, including Marconi. The $2,000,000 yearling purchase broke his maiden by 5 1/2 lengths last out after finishing second on debut.

“I think (the win) was a combination of him starting to figure some things out from that first race, and the addition of blinkers also helped,” said Pletcher, whose previous Withers victories came with Harlem Rocker (2008), Revolutionary (2013), and Far From Over (2015). “He’s a stoutly-bred horse and he’s shown some promise in his first two starts. We decided to keep him (in New York) because the distance seems to suit him well and we’re hoping he continues in his development.”

The $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes second-place finisher Bal Harbour will also run for Pletcher, breaking from post 3.

“I thought he ran well (in the Mucho Macho Man),” said Pletcher. “He was second-best on that day. He probably would’ve been closer with a little more contested pace up front, but I thought he showed some gameness to continue closing to finish second. Hopefully, that race brings him forward again. We feel like this is a good opportunity for him to see how he handles the added distance.”

Finally, Coltandmississippi will give Aqueduct a try once more after a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Jerome Stakes last time out. Here, he finally drew an outside post after drawing the rail in his last three starts.

“He’s been continually drawing the one hole, which has been a little bit to his disadvantage, but it seemed like once he got in the clear (in the Jerome), he closed well,” said Pletcher. “We’re looking forward to stretching him out to a mile and 1/8. His only other time around two turns was in the Sapling, and he got in a ton of trouble at the start, and basically that was no real barometer on how he’ll handle two turns, so we’re hoping he’ll step forward.”

Local post time for the Withers is 4:35 PM EST.

Top Choice

#4 Avery Island – Smart move by McLaughlin bringing him back to Aqueduct. He loves this track, winning the Nashua over this surface in blowout fashion, then following that up with a solid second in the Remsen to round out his 2017. His Remsen trip was less than ideal, which made his distant finish behind Catholic Boy a bit deceiving. He seems to be training well leading up to his 3-year-old debut and has enough early speed to ensure that he gets a nice stalking trip. This is one that could be a legitimate prospect, and the distance should be right up his alley.

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#2 Marconi – He definitely has the breeding (sired by Tapit) to get the job done, and his $2,000,000 purchase price helps prove it. With that kind of purchase price comes big expectations, and he did his best to live up to those lofty thoughts with a big maiden special weight score last time out. That win came at the same distance as this race, and he won despite breaking awkwardly and falling back to last early in the race. The horse seems to still be learning, but if he can continue to progress, then he could be dangerous in this spot.

Exotic Plays

#1 Firenze Fire – As a Grade 1 winner, he’s easily the class of the field and also is coming off of a gutty win in the Jerome last time out. This will be his second race going two turns, and he’ll have to run much better this time around after he was a total non-factor in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This race will be a much easier spot than that one, but it’s worth noting that he beat Good Magic when running a one-turn mile, so he might not like going two turns. That makes it worth trying to beat him this go-around.

#3 Bal Harbour – This consistent Pletcher runner ran a decent second in the Mucho Macho Man last time out. He was no match for Mask, but he was able to finish ahead of Dak Attack, which is a positive. There’s not much that’s flashy about him, but he sticks to his business and keeps running at the end. He won the $75,000 Smooth Air Stakes two races back, so that coupled with his last effort earned him a shot in this race. He should sit a decent trip.

Party Crashers

#6 California Night – It’s hard to tell what might happen with him, as he only has one lifetime race, but it was a good one: he finished first by 3 lengths in a maiden special weight at Aqueduct. There were only three other horses in the field, so the competition was lacking, and the race was a one-turn, 6 1/2-furlong dash. Turning that into success at two turns will be difficult, but he does look to have a pace advantage in here and is in with a shot if he gets out to a lonely lead.

Throw Outs

#5 Coltandmississippi – Getting off the rail for is going to help; he’s been stuck on the inside in his last three starts. He showed a good account of himself in the Jerome, but he might just be a small cut below these horses.

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