OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The Withers Stakes has a long history as an important race for 3-year-olds with Triple Crown aspirations. It was first contested in 1874, when a horse named Dublin was victorious, and a year later it was captured by Aristides, the horse who won the very first Kentucky Derby.
In 1919, Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, took the Withers and the following year it became one of the 20 wins in 21 starts by the immortal Man o' War. Yet these days there's a different type of link between the Kentucky Derby and the Withers.
For many of its 136 past runnings, the Withers was contested at a mile and positioned after or so close to the Kentucky Derby that was it viewed as a prep for the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes.
The change came in 2012, when after a one-year hiatus the Withers returned to the New York Racing Association's stakes schedule. It was lengthened to a mile and a sixteenth and placed on the first Saturday in February as the second of four monthly New York preps for the Kentucky Derby.
On Saturday at Aqueduct, the Grade 3, $250,000 stakes will be run for the sixth time in that form, carrying with it a valuable reward to the top four finishers of 10-4-2-1 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series.
"The Withers has become an important race because it's a points race for the Kentucky Derby," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who won the 2012 Withers with Alpha. "They have a great program for 3-year-olds in New York, starting with the Jerome and continuing with the Withers, Gotham and Wood. As long as the weather cooperates, you will get some nice horses in those races."
Alpha rates as the most accomplished of the winter-time Withers winners. A winner of six of 22 starts with earnings of slightly more than $1.8 million, Alpha notched his first graded stakes triumph in the 2012 Withers, but it wasn't his last. Though he finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby, the Godolphin Racing colt went on to record a memorable dead-heat with Golden Ticket in that year's Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
The following year, Alpha returned to Saratoga and triumphed in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes.
Alpha was also the first of three straight Withers victors to race in the Kentucky Derby.
WinStar Farm's Revolutionary won the 2013 Withers and then prevailed in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Belmont Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher. The second betting choice in each of those Triple Crown races, he later won the Grade 3 Pimlico Special in 2014.
My Meadowview Farm's Samraat, winner of the 2014 Withers, was fifth in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Belmont Stakes. Last year, he finished second in the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont Park.
Last year's Withers winner, Dennis Drazin's Sunny Ridge, missed the Triple Crown, but was third in the Grade 1 Haskell and last month won the Jazil Stakes at Aqueduct.
In its previous incarnation, the Withers' most recent classic victory came from Bernardini in 2006. Trained by Tom Albertrani, Bernardini won the Withers on April 29 in his third career start and stakes debut and then three weeks later posted a 5 ¼-length victory in the Preakness. Named at year's end as the champion 3-year-old male, he then reeled off successive victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup before finishing second as a 6-5 favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Other champions who numbered a Withers win in their Eclipse Award-winning seasons include the great sprinter Housebuster, who took the 1990 edition of the then Grade 2 one-mile race at Belmont Park.
Years earlier, the value of the Withers was seen in 1953 when Native Dancer rebounded from a defeat in the Kentucky Derby - his lone loss in 22 starts - with a four-length win in the Withers that preceded his victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
In 1943, Count Fleet raced in the Withers during his Triple Crown sweep. He cruised to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness then scored in the Withers prior to romping by 25 lengths in the Belmont Stakes.
The 1960's saw the Withers serve a different purpose to a trio of champions. Jaipur, the champion 3-year-old male of 1962, won the Withers and then three races later captured the Belmont Stakes by a nose. In August of that year, Jaipur defeated Ridan by a nose in the Travers in one of the sport's greatest duels. In 1969, Ack Ack won the Withers via disqualification but did not compete in any of the Triple Crown races. In 1971, however, he became the first Horse of the Year in the Eclipse Awards era.
Finally, in 1967, Dr. Fager's 3-year-old campaign started too late to include a Triple Crown race. Yet in his second start of the year, he once again demonstrated the brilliance that would be a hallmark of his legendary career by recording a six-length score in the Withers.
The following year, Dr. Fager was honored as a champion in four categories, including Horse of the Year - making him part of an exclusive club of great 3-year-olds who used the Withers as a ladder to future success and made it one of New York's more renowned stakes for more than a century.