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Friday, February 3, 2012
Stakes on the rise at Aqueduct

By Bob Ehalt

The first Saturday in May has a special meaning to horse racing fans, conjuring up visions of mint juleps and twin spires.

But thanks to this year’s purse enhancements, the New York Racing Association was able to convert the first Saturdays in February, March and April into special afternoons in their own right.

Beginning with Saturday’s February fling at Aqueduct, the Feb. 4, March 3 and April 7 programs will advance New York’s stepping-stone preps to that famed first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs with cards featuring at least three stakes.

The key race on Saturday’s 10-race, 3-stakes card (two of them graded) is the Grade 3 $200,000 Withers, which features New York’s brightest Kentucky Derby candidate, Alpha.

An impressive winner of the Count Fleet on Jan. 7, Alpha has only one real blemish on his record, an 11th-place stinker in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Other than that, he was second in the Champagne and a six-length maiden winner at Saratoga.

The son of Bernardini had a sharp blowout on Jan. 30, breezing five furlongs in 1:01 flat, and faces a fairly weak group in his bid to pick up as much as $120,000 in graded stakes earnings, the criteria that can ultimately decide spots in the Kentucky Derby.

With Stephanoatsee, the Count Fleet runner-up, sidelined, the Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Alpha rates as an even-money favorite in a field of seven, and his price figures to be lower than that by post time.

King Kid is the second choice at 4-1. The Lemon Drop Kid colt was third by six lengths in the Gulfstream Park Derby, which started the 3-year-old prep season on Jan. 1.

The rest of the field includes Laurel shippers Hakama and Tiger Walk, the Dick Dutrow-trained New York State-bred Swag Daddy and Repole Stable’s How Do I Win.

Prior to the Withers, sprinters will be showcased in the Grade 3, $150,000 Toboggan Handicap. The six-furlong stakes looms a tag-team battle with Repole’s 7-5 favored entry of Caixa Eletronica and Calibrachoa squaring off against the duo of Flat Bold and Candyman E, the 9-5 second choices.

The stakes package starts with Saturday’s sixth race, the $100,000 Correction, a sprint for fillies and mares.

Nicole H, a perfect 3 for 3 on the Big A’s inner track and winner of the New Year’s Day Interborough, heads a field of seven as the 6-5 favorite. Winning Image, who set the early pace in the Interborough and lost by a neck in the final strides, once again looms as the main rival for the favorite.

Oh, and speaking of the purse enhancements, the Aqueduct casino has averaged a net win of about $11 million for each of the last three weeks. One can only imagine how much it will make when Resorts World actually starts advertising the place.