The first time jockey Joe Bravo saw Avery Island as an unraced 2-year-old, he was excited.
"Have you taken a look at him?" Bravo says.
Now, five starts later—all with Bravo in the irons—the homebred Godolphin Racing colt has "Jersey Joe" dreaming about being in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May.
Avery Island kicked off his 3-year-old campaign in sharp fashion Feb. 3 when he notched a two-length victory for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin over grade 1 winner Firenze Fire in the $250,000 Withers Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct Racetrack. The Street Sense colt was exiting a second-place finish in the Dec. 2 Remsen Stakes (G2) behind Catholic Boy at the same track and 1 1/8-mile distance as the Withers.
"The best horse won today. He's doing everything we've asked of him and getting better each time, so I don't see why (he won't get better with more distance)," Bravo said. "He's smarter than he was for the Remsen. Physically he always had the tools, but he's just learning about the game. He's just going to keep getting better. Kiaran has him on the right trail. You can see each one of his races were better."
The victory was the third in five starts for Avery Island, and was worth 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. A winner of the Nashua Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct in November, Avery Island now has 14 points. Out of the A.P. Indy mare Kinda Spicy, Avery Island picked up $150,000 for his victory and now has earnings of $365,332.
In a short field of five, 34-1 outsider Coltandmississippi, one of three Todd Pletcher-trained runners in the race, set the pace on the backstretch, with Avery Island just off him through fractions of :23.32 and :47.08 seconds. Bravo guided the 6-5 favorite ($4.30) to the lead midway on the final turn after six furlongs in 1:11.57 and maintained a clear margin from there while cruising to victory in 1:51.01 for the nine furlongs.
"It looked like he was push-button," McLaughlin said from Florida. "It was a great run. Joe Bravo rode him very well, letting the other speed go and sitting second. He did everything right and finished strong."
The trainer now has four Withers wins, with Alpha 's 2012 victory his most recent prior triumph.
McLaughlin said he would speak with Godolphin USA president Jimmy Bell before mapping out Avery Island's next start, but ruled out the $300,000 Gotham Stakes (G3) March 10 at Aqueduct because of its one-mile distance.
Mr. Amore Stable's Champagne Stakes (G1) winner Firenze Fire was third much of the way before offering a mild stretch bid that could not cut into Avery Island's lead. He finished second, two lengths back.
"I thought he handled the mile-and-an-eighth. I would have rather had him sit back a little more and then make a move," said jockey Trevor McCarthy, "but he was a bit on the muscle today. He kicked well for me, but (Avery Island) kicked better."
The second-place finish netted the third choice four points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby gave him a total of 24, tying him for the top spot on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with champion 2-year-old male Good Magic.
"He ran well," owner Ron Lombardi said. "You always want to win but coming back three weeks (after winning the Jerome), you can't complain. He tried."
Lombardi said if all goes well, Firenze Fire will "probably" run in both the Gotham and then the April 7 Wood Memorial Stakes (G2). Being a grade 1 winner, Firenze Fire would trigger a $250,000 bonus in the Wood, pushing the purse to $1 million.
Marconi, purchased for $2 million at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, was a half-length back in third for owners Bridlewood Farm, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith and Susan Magnier. The son of Tapit picked up two points in his first start after a 5 1/2-length maiden win for Pletcher.
It was another 18 3/4 lengths back to Coltandmississippi, who received one point. Bal Harbour finished 1 1/4 lengths further back to complete the order of finish in the 138th edition of the Withers. California Night was scratched.