Only six sophomores were entered for Saturday’s $250,000 Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct, but the Road to the Kentucky Derby points contest features both Firenze Fire and Avery Island seeking the majority of the 10-4-2-1 points up for grabs.
Firenze Fire already boasts a trio of stakes wins, the most recent of which came at Aqueduct three weeks ago in the January 13 Jerome Stakes. That contest had to be rescheduled from New Year’s Day due to winter weather, but regardless of the date shift Firenze Fire proved a nice half-length winner as the 2-5 favorite.
The Jerome came over a muddy, sealed track at Aqueduct and followed the bay colt’s subpar seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) to close out his two-year-old campaign last November. The son of Poseidon’s Warrior has suffered only one other loss in his career, with that coming as a fourth in the Hopeful Stakes (G1), which was sandwiched between victories in the Sanford Stakes (G3) at Saratoga last July 22 and the October 7 Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park.
Trained by Jason Servis, Firenze Fire breezed a half-mile in :49.32 over Belmont Park’s fast dirt training track on Monday. He’ll have Trevor McCarthy in the irons for the first time in the Withers.
Avery Island seeks a return to the winner’s circle in this spot for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The Street Sense sophomore broke his maiden by 5 1/4 lengths at Belmont Park over a good, sealed track going 1 1/16 miles, then wired the one-mile Nashua Stakes (G2) by 4 3/4 lengths on November 5 at Aqueduct.
The Godolphin homebred stretched out to the Withers’ distance of nine furlongs for the Remsen Stakes (G2) next out on December 2, and rallied to be second under returning regular rider Joe Bravo. Avery Island earned a career-best 93 BRIS Speed rating for that effort and carries the co-topweight of 122 pounds on Saturday.
“It was a good race for him to get educated,” McLaughlin said of the Remsen. “(Winner) 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’s doing great. He’s ready and we know he wants the distance, so it’s all a plus. We wouldn’t trade places with anybody.”
Bal Harbour will do his best to derail both Firenze Fire and Avery Island in the Withers. The well-traveled son of First Samurai already scored stakes wins in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park and Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream Park last season. The Todd Pletcher trainee also finished fifth and fourth, respectively, in the Sanford and Saratoga Special Stakes (G2) at Saratoga.
Bal Harbour made his sophomore bow on January 6, running second in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, and gets Kendrick Carmouche aboard for the initial time here.
“I thought he ran well (in the Mucho Macho Man),” Pletcher said. “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.”
Coltandmississippi has finished behind Firenze Fire and Bal Harbor in three of his last four races. He ran third in the Jerome most recently and was fifth in the Smooth Air prior to that. The Pletcher pupil captured a seven-furlong allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream Park West on October 27 by six lengths, but was rank while running in last throughout the Sapling a month earlier. Junior Alvarado will be aboard here from post 5.
“He’s been continually drawing the one hole (past three races), 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,” Pletcher said. “We’re looking forward to stretching him out to a mile and an eighth. 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.”
Marconi and California Night are both facing winners for the first time in this spot. The former broke his maiden in his second try by 5 1/2 lengths over track and distance on December 15 after Pletcher added blinkers to his equipment. Manuel Franco has the call on Tapit colt.
“I think it was a combination of him starting to figure some things out from that first race and the addition of blinkers also helped,” Pletcher said. “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.”
California Night was a three-length, gate-to-wire winner in his debut for trainer Mike Maker on December 10 at Aqueduct, and will be stretching out past 6 1/2 furlongs here with Rafael Hernandez holding the reins.