OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Promising stakes winners Flexibility and Sunny Ridge will square off at Aqueduct Racetrack on Saturday as they head a field of seven classic-minded 3-year-olds in the 136th running of the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers, the next step on New York's road to the Triple Crown.
The Withers, which is followed by the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham on March 5 and the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial on April 9 for sophomores eyeing the Kentucky Derby, is worth 10 points to the winner as a designated race in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series.
Flexibility, who has already earned 10 qualifying points along the "Road to the Roses" courtesy of his victory in the Grade 3 Jerome, was tabbed as the 7-5 morning-line favorite in the Withers. The 1 1/16-mile race will be run as the fourth on the 10-race card as it shares the spotlight with the Grade 3, $150,000 Toboggan. Also on Saturday, fans are eligible to receive a giveaway coupon for an Aqueduct knit hat and a pair of "smart gloves," free while supplies last, with the purchase of a racing program.
A bay son of Bluegrass Cat, Flexibility sparkled in his debut facing fellow New York-breds on October 10 at Belmont Park, then took on open company and finished a willing second to the well-regarded Mohaymen in November's Remsen and Nashua, both Grade 2 events at the Big A.
In the one-mile, 70-yard Jerome, Flexibility sat fourth behind a three-way speed duel before sweeping wide on the turn and opening up to an easy 4 ¼-length victory. Despite running a bit erratically once on the lead, Flexibility completed the race in 1:42.98 and earned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure.
"He's doing very well and I'm hopeful for a similar kind of performance from him as last time," said Chad Brown, who trains Flexibility for Klaravich Stables. "He's maturing and getting better, but he still has some ways to go. When he made the lead in the Jerome, he wandered around a bit and might have lost his focus. He seems to be more focused with a target in from of him. [But] I think he has turned the corner and is maturing the way you like to see [a horse mature] from two to three years old."
Flexibility will leave from post position 2 with Irad Ortiz, Jr. aboard.
Sunny Ridge, who closed out his 2015 campaign with a close-up second in the Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes, will be making his 3-year-old and Big A debut in the Withers. Trained by Jason Servis for Dennis Drazin, the gelded son of Holy Bull has two victories on his resume, both at Monmouth Park, having broken his maiden in June and winning the Sapling in September. In two New York appearances, he was a rank seventh in the Grade 3 Sanford at Saratoga Race Course and then a willing second to Greenpointcrusader in the Grade 1 Champagne in October at Belmont Park.
"The Delta trip was a lot for him," said Servis. "He ran hard, and he had to ship. With this race, we're sort of feeling our way. He's plenty of time since the Delta, and the timing of this race was good. How he does will tell us a lot about what direction to take with him."
Manny Franco will ride Sunny Ridge, the 5-2 morning-line second choice, from post position 7.
Making a leap into graded stakes company off an impressive maiden win is Treadway Racing Stable's Adventist, who barreled to an 11 ¼-length score first time out on December 19 at the Big A for trainer Leah Gyarmati. At 5-1 on the morning line, Adventist will be ridden by Kendrick Carmouche from post position 6.
King Kranz, one of 15 early nominations to the Triple Crown by owner Ahmed Zayat, broke his maiden in stylish fashion last time out in the Lost in the Fog on New Year's Day. Equipped with blinkers for the first time after losing five straight, the John Terranova trainee came from just off the pace and onto a one-length victory over Jan's Reserve. Listed at 8-1 on the morning line, he will leave from post position 4 with Cornelio Velasquez in the irons.
Completing the field, from the rail out, are the Todd Pletcher-trained Donegal Moon, who last all chance in the Jerome after stumbling at the start and losing his rider; Cards of Stone, second in an optional claimer last time out; and Vorticity, who finished second after setting the pace in the Jerome.