March 22, 2023

Five points to ponder: 2021 Withers, Sam F. Davis

Known Agenda (inside) defeats Greatest Honour at Aqueduct on Nov. 8 @ Adam Coglianese Photography

Trainer Todd Pletcher is double-handed in both of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (G1) scoring races, the $250,000 Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct and the $250,000 Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs.

A record six-time winner of the Davis, Pletcher has captured three runnings of the Withers. His disposition of forces on both fronts is therefore worth (over)analyzing.

The opposing trainers with leading chances – most notably Chad Brown in the Withers and Bill Mott in the Davis – have yet to win those respective preps. File that stat under the category of curiosity rather than actionable intelligence.

The 1 1/8-mile Withers and 1 1/16-mile Davis both offer points on the 10-4-2-1 scale, along with clues to the bigger prizes at their locales and the Derby trail more broadly. The Withers will sift contenders especially for the Wood Memorial (G2) at the same track and trip Apr. 3, while the Davis has a bearing in the nearer-term on the Mar. 6 Tampa Bay Derby (G2).

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Pletcher keeps Known Agenda in Florida and sends Donegal Bay to New York.

Known Agenda broke his maiden over the Withers track and trip, becoming the last horse to beat the upwardly mobile Holy Bull (G3) hero Greatest Honour, but he is not returning for the Withers. Left a distance behind in third in that maiden was stablemate Overtook, a next-out winner himself rolling from the clouds at Aqueduct. Overtook has continued to winter in New York, so it makes sense for the $1 million Curlin blueblood to make his stakes debut in the Withers.

Fellow Curlin colt Known Agenda has already made his stakes debut at the same venue, a well-beaten third in the Dec. 5 Remsen (G2) in the slop. The top two (Brooklyn Strong and Ten for Ten) have yet to resurface, but the form doesn’t look compelling overall. In any event, I doubt this was a true indicator of Known Agenda’s ability. After all, he had been runner-up to well-regarded Highly Motivated in his Belmont premiere over an inadequate 6 1/2 furlongs before outdueling Greatest Honour.

Known Agenda was dispatched to Pletcher’s headquarters at Palm Beach Downs, perhaps a tipoff of potential, instead of hanging around through a New York winter. A homebred for St. Elias (which is also involved in the Overtook partnership), Known Agenda is out of British import Byrama, who scored in the 2013 Vanity H. (G1) during Southern California’s synthetic era. That pedigree angle might be useful on a Tampa surface that can play to turfy backgrounds. (See last year’s winner, Sole Volante, whose trainer Patrick Biancone tries a similar gambit with Lucky Law on Saturday.)

It’s possible that could be a factor in Millean’s taking the van ride to Tampa. Starting out on turf, the Donegal Racing runner broke his maiden for a $50,000 tag on the Gulfstream dirt. But his Donegal Racing colleague Donegal Bay has more upside, and arguably more deserving of a trip to Aqueduct for the Withers. There Donegal Bay can test himself on the trail, without tangling with stablemate Known Agenda at Tampa. The Juddmonte-bred son of Uncle Mo, out of a daughter of Empire Maker and Flute, is still developing as a May 13 foal.

2. Capo Kane and Nova Rags face greater challenges this time.

Each race features a recent stakes winner over the track. As authoritative as Capo Kane was in the Jan. 1 Jerome at Aqueduct, and Nova Rags was in the Jan. 16 Pasco at Tampa, they’ll have to up their game again in Saturday’s deeper preps.

Capo Kane put on a front-running clinic in the Jerome, as he did in his Parx maiden romp two starts back. The Harold Wyner pupil might not enjoy the same set-up, with Donegal Bay having good early speed himself in his Gulfstream wire job. On the other hand, Capo Kane doesn’t strike me as the need-the-lead type, just one who can capitalize if nobody else wants the job. The Street Sense colt will have to cope with rivals better than Eagle Orb on Saturday, but if you grant him tactical flexibility, he has lots of appeal.

The Mott-trained Nova Rags stayed on best after a pace collapse in the seven-furlong Pasco. One school of thought is that he appreciated the cutback after throwing in the lone poor effort of his life at a mile, when fourth in the Nov. 8 Nashua (G3). Yet Nova Rags was beaten long before stamina could be the culprit. Stalking a pace similar to his debut win over six furlongs, he just backed out of it before midstretch, possibly in a case of too much, too soon. If so, the Pasco was more about getting back on track in a cozy spot before diving into the deep end. Nova Rags accomplished that objective in style. The question for me isn’t so much the Davis distance – you’d expect a Union Rags colt out of a Smart Strike mare to be effective going two turns – as how he stacks up versus the opposition.

3. Risk Taking and Candy Man Rocket are bred on potent crosses.

Both convincing maiden winners last out, Risk Taking and Candy Man Rocket share a less obvious point of commonality as they step up to graded stakes. The Brown-trained Risk Taking is bred on the potent cross of Medaglia d’Oro over a Forty Niner-line mare, and Mott’s Candy Man Rocket features a similarly key blend of Candy Ride over Storm Cat.

Even if Risk Taking hadn’t traveled on the bridle before kicking on strongly in a 1 1/8-mile Aqueduct maiden, his pedigree would have given confidence about his aptitude for the Withers. Risk Taking is out of a Distorted Humor mare, replicating the cross of such major Medaglia d’Oro winners as Elate, New Money Honey, and current Hong Kong star Golden Sixty. Zooming out to include mares descended from Distorted Humor’s sire Forty Niner, you find Medaglia d’Oro’s greatest champions, Rachel Alexandra and Songbird.

Candy Man Rocket’s parentage is more ambiguous as he stretches out for the Davis. Candy Ride’s headliners bred along similar lines include Gun Runner (out of a mare by the stouter Giant’s Causeway), Shared Belief and Sidney’s Candy, but also sprinters like Capt. Candyman Can, Evita Argentina, and Sparky Ville. With Candy Man Rocket’s broodmare sire being Forestry, he might tend toward the speedier side of the spectrum. If his resounding sprint maiden at Gulfstream had that flavor, his deep family tracing to Courtly Dee could help.

4. What if Hidden Stash had run in the Kentucky Jockey Club?

Smiley Sobotka was a scrappy second in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), fending off his pace challengers and succumbing only to late-running Keepmeinmind. Still, other alumni of that race haven’t exactly flattered the form, making Smiley Sobotka a vulnerable morning-line favorite in this spot.

Moreover, it prompts comparison with an allowance on the same “Stars of Tomorrow II” card at Churchill, won by the fascinating Hidden Stash. A well-bred son of Constitution, Hidden Stash had to summon a stronger kick than Keepmeinmind (98 Brisnet Late Pace versus 94) to catch flashy even-money favorite Scarred. Even though the pace was substantially slower than the Kentucky Jockey Club’s, Hidden Stash clocked a final time just .15 off Keepmeinmind.

Allowing for the fact that Hidden Stash is still learning on the job, the counterfactual is tempting: what if trainer Vicki Oliver hadn’t gone the conservative route off his Keeneland maiden win, but thrown him into the Kentucky Jockey Club? Could he have pulled an upset? Maybe the more streetwise Keepmeinmind would have outfoxed him. But I think Hidden Stash would have outfinished Smiley Sobotka that day, and have high hopes for his progression into a serious Derby contender.

5. Runway Magic comes off a sneaky prep for the Davis.

An eye-catching maiden winner going seven furlongs on “Stars of Tomorrow II,” Runway Magic posted a time almost as fast as Mandaloun (1:23.31 versus 1:23.15) did in his allowance. The Rusty Arnold trainee then shortened up for the Jan. 2 Limehouse at Gulfstream, where he was given the ideal kind of warm-up for a horse aiming to stretch out. Unhurried early behind a scorching pace, Runway Magic launched a sustained rally to finish third behind the imperious Drain the Clock. He never got close to the winner, but his effort smacked of a mission accomplished to set him up.

Although a son of Runhappy, Runway Magic likely inherits enough from broodmare sire A.P. Indy to handle a route. And his brilliant granddam, Madcap Escapade, saw out this trip to win the 2004 Ashland (G1).