Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Dave Litfin - Litfin At Large

Litfin At Large: Triple Crown Prep Season Heating Up

Withers, Holy Bull, and Robert B. Lewis Stakes highlight weekend action.

The Triple Crown prep season begins in earnest Feb. 3, when qualifying point races for the Kentucky Derby Presented By Woodford Reserve (G1) are contested at Aqueduct Racetrack, Gulfstream Park, and Santa Anita Park.

All three stakes for newly turned 3-year-olds distribute points on a 10-4-2-1 basis:

In New York, the Withers Stakes (G3) drew a field of six, headed by the graded stakes winners Avery Island and Firenze Fire.

In South Florida, a wide-open renewal of the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) is preceded by four grade 3 stakes, including the Forward Gal, a qualifying points race (also 10-4-2-1) for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1).

And out in Southern California, the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) is bolstered by three other graded stakes, notably the Palos Verdes (G2) featuring Eclipse Award-winning sprinter Roy H in his seasonal debut.

You don't need me to tell you Roy H stands out against four opponents. But what about the 3-year-olds? Let's take a look:

Withers (Aqu, race 8, 4:35 ET): This is the first winter since 1975 with no inner-dirt track at Aqueduct, and the chief negative by-product has been the elimination of two-turn races shorter than nine furlongs. The Withers, run at 1 1/16-miles the past six years, has been lengthened to 1 1/8-miles, and it pretty much boils down to the two most accomplished horses—Avery Island and Firenze Fire—taking on a trio of Todd Pletcher-trained runners, the best of which will very probably wind up being Marconi.

Firenze Fire (1) has knocked out four wins at four different tracks, topped by a hard-fought upset of the Champagne Stakes (G1) over subsequent Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner and Eclipse Award champion Good Magic.

However, Firenze Fire is back in just three weeks after working harder than expected to grind out a win in the listed Jerome Stakes. He already has 20 qualifying points, so a win here would leave the over-achieving son of Poseidon's Warrior  sitting pretty, with the Run for the Roses still three months away.

Firenze Fire remains unproven past one mile, but Avery Island (4) and Marconi (2) both ran promising nine-furlong races over the revamped Aqueduct surface in December.

Coming off a front-end win in the Nashua Stakes (G2), Avery Island gained useful experience rating behind and between horses en route to a runner-up finish in the Remsen Stakes (G2).

With just two races under his belt, Marconi is a work in progress, but the $2 million half-brother to 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Mucho Macho Man  finished powerfully to win a maiden route second time out. You might want to get a future-book bet down for the Belmont Stakes Presented By NYRA Bets (G1), as sons of Tapit  have won three of the last four runnings, along with Frosted 's second-place finish to American Pharoah  in 2015.

A - 2, 4
B - 1

Holy Bull (GP, race 12, 5:49 ET): It could be a big afternoon for Godolphin Racing and Kiaran McLaughlin, who have Avery Island going a little earlier in the Withers, and have Enticed breaking from the rail in this 1 1/16-mile race that features a short stretch run.

Enticed (1), whose only loss from three starts as a juvenile  was a third in the Champagne, makes his first start since overcoming some early trouble to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) by a head over Tiz Mischief (7).

Tiz Mischief ran equally well in that race, breaking from post 12, altering course between horses and finishing gamely to just miss. He is among four horses entered in the Holy Bull by Dale Romans, but either Free Drop Billy (2) or Hollywood Star (6) will reportedly await next week's Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs.

Pletcher has "only" two, but Audible (4) and Pony Up (8) are both in with a chance, and the latter may be worth a long look if he falls through the cracks off a turf-to-dirt switch. 

The thing with Pony Up is that, although he has been running well on the grass, his pedigree (by Aikenite  out of an A.P. Indy mare) leans to dirt, and indeed his half-brother S'Maverlous was a nine-time winner of $685,000 on that surface.

Pony Up ran on dirt once as a 2-year-old, when he made his career debut and ran a close second to Soutache, who eventually won two Florida Stallion events—the $200,000 Affirmed and $400,000 In Reality.

This anchor leg of pick every-things looks like a good place to spread.

A - 1, 7, 8
B - 2, 4, 6

Robert B. Lewis (SA, race 5, 2:30 PT): All nine entrants are eligible for a-other-than allowance conditions.

The logical favorites are Shivermetimbers (5) and Peace (7). who engaged in a prolonged pace dispute when heads apart in a well-run maiden race at Del Mar in late November.

Shivermetimbers subsequently steadied while tiring at the top of the stretch in the Sham Stakes (G3), and is back four weeks later.

Peace returned to notch his maiden win in late December, and while he seemed fully stretched to edge Regulate (one of two non-winners in the lineup), the addition of blinkers here suggests trainer Richard Mandella believes this lightly raced colt by Violence  may need his focus sharpened.

Ayacara (1) and Inscom (6) capped off their juvenile seasons running second and sixth in the Eddie Logan Stakes over the local turf course. The former is another son of Violence who is getting blinkers Saturday, while the latter has made good progress since a debacle on the main track at Los Alamitos Race Course nearly five months ago.

Inscom, a son of Distorted Humor  who sold for $850,000 last May, was bet to odds-on for his unveiling at Los Al, but Murphy's Law was in full effect, and he became extremely rank after missing the break and spotting the field several lengths.

That was the first and last time Inscom raced wearing blinkers, and he showed better tractability when beaten just a head in the Eddie Logan, while clear of next-out California Derby winner Choo Choo.

A - 5, 7
B - 1, 6