Two highly regarded New York-breds lead a field of six 3-year-olds entered for the $250,000 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack on Feb. 1, both coming off impressive performances to tackle open company.
The Withers, won last year by Revolutionary, is worth 10 points to the winner with 4-2-1 awarded the following three runners on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
My Meadowview Farm's homebred Samraat, undefeated in three starts for trainer Rick Violette, was a riveting 16 ¾-length winner of the Dec. 18 Damon Runyon Stakes at a mile and 70 yards on the inner track at Aqueduct. By Noble Causeway out of the Indian Charlie mare Little Indian Girl, Samraat debuted at Belmont Park in October to win a six-furlong sprint by 3 1/2, then took a 7 ½-furlong entry-level allowance on Nov. 22 over Aqueduct's main track. He has been working steadily at Palm Meadows in South Florida, including a pair of one-mile breezes (1:41.85 on Jan. 17 and 1:46 ⅗ on Jan. 24).
"He had a few races close together and ran such a big race in the Damon Runyon, and because the Damon Runyon had been delayed it seemed like the (Jan. 4) Jerome would be back too quick," Violette said. "We sent him to Florida, and it seems like that's been the right move with the way the weather has been (in New York). He's been doing great, as usual."
Jose Ortiz retains the mount aboard Samraat, who drew post 5 as the 7-5 morning-line favorite. In the Damon Runyon, Samraat set soft fractions of :24.55 seconds and :49.73 seconds while leading by one length. Never asked for his best run, he proceeded to pull away in the stretch as Ortiz remained still in the saddle.
Violette, however, believes Samraat does not necessarily need the lead.
"I think he has been faster [than his opponents]," the trainer said. "He's obviously pretty quick, and showed it when he went to the lead from the inside in a sprint [in his debut]. If others want to be more aggressive, he can let them do that."
The favorite's ability to withstand a challenge or race from off the pace might be tested in the Withers, because Gary Contessa, trainer of fellow New York-bred Uncle Sigh, is determined to not let Samraat set slow fractions.
"Honestly, I'm hoping somebody keeps Samraat honest," Contessa remarked. "If nobody else wants to go with him, I'll tell my rider to go out with him. I'm not looking at it as us having to beat one horse because we have to beat all the horses, but I'm not going to let Samraat get an easy lead this time."
Uncle Sigh, an Indian Charlie colt out of the Pine Bluff mare Cradlesong, is campaigned by Chip McEwen's Wounded Warrior Stables and Anthony Robertson. He missed by just a head when second in his debut, a six-furlong race in the mud on Dec. 7 at Aqueduct, after coming from off the pace. Stretching out to a mile and 70 yards on Dec. 27, he cleared the lead and never looked back, running away by 14 ½ lengths under Pablo Morales' hand ride.
"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a horse who broke his maiden so impressively," said Contessa. "His first two weren't just visually impressive, but the numbers back it up. This is the logical next spot. You're not going to find many multiple winners in the race, and most will be eligible for an entry-level allowance."
Uncle Sigh, the 9-5 second choice on the morning line, will leave from the rail with Morales in the irons once more. Also coming off a gate-to-wire maiden win is Street Gent, who prevailed by three-quarters of a length in his fourth start Dec. 1 at Aqueduct. The Kentucky-bred Street Sense colt finished off the board in his first two outings, a pair of turf events in the fall at Belmont. Subsequently switched to the dirt, he was third, beaten 8 1/4 lengths, in November before finally repelling Tourist's late challenge to earn his diploma in December. Both dirt races were contested at 1 ⅛ miles on Aqueduct's main track.
Street Gent is trained by Leah Gyarmati for Jeff Treadway's Treadway Racing Stable, who combined to win the Jerome with Noble Moon.
"Pedigree, and the way he moved on the dirt, were the reasons we decided to try turf right away," said Gyarmati. "He's a big horse and he just doesn't look pretty moving on the dirt. His works weren't that impressive either. We thought we'd try him right away there when we still had some decent turf and get it out of the way, rather than finding out he's a turf horse in the middle of the winter. "I thought his third start was pretty decent," Gyarmati added. "Obviously there was a dramatic difference between the way he ran on the dirt and the way he ran on the turf. You have to throw those first two races out completely because of the surface. He also left the gate a little slowly; he kind of ducked over and didn't have a good experience at the gate his first two starts. I think doing a little gate work and the change in surface made the difference. Between his third and fourth starts, he was just progressing."
Irad Ortiz, Jr. has the call aboard Street Gent, who drew post 2 and was installed at 12-1 on the morning line. The field also includes the second- and third-place finishers from the Jerome -- Joseph Besecker and Lisa Guerrero's Giacomo colt Classic Giacnroll and the Horse Greeley colt Scotland, who races for Harvey Clarke, Paul Braverman, and Team D. Completing the lineup is Cash Is King's Pennsylvania-bred Honorable Judge, a son of Afleet Alex who took an allowance at Parx Racing by 2 ¼ lengths on Nov. 3.