02/01/2016 11:42AM

Road to the Derby analysis: Withers Stakes

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Debra A. Roma
Sunny Ridge and jockey Manny Franco win the Grade 3 Withers Stakes by three-quarters of a length.

Grade 3, $250,000 Withers, 1 1/16 miles, Aqueduct, Jan. 30, 2016
(10 Derby qualifying points for a win, 4 for second, 2 for third, 1 for fourth)

Winner: Sunny Ridge (sire: Holy Bull)
Trainer: Jason Servis
Jockey: Manny Franco
Owner: Dennis Drazin
Beyer Speed Figure: 87

For a homebred who was risked for $40,000 in his debut, SUNNY RIDGE certainly has proven to be a pleasant surprise, with this victory pushing him past the $500,000 mark in career earnings. He has finished first or second in five of six starts.

This marked his first start at age 3. He completed his 2-year-old campaign with a game second-place finish in the Delta Jackpot. His connections have been refreshingly realistic about whether he will head down the Kentucky Derby trail. As reported by DRF’s David Grening after the race, it’s not of paramount importance to them.

And based on the analytics of this race, that’s probably wise. The winning Beyer Speed Figure is below what will be needed to compete with the division’s elite. This race, in fact, was expected to be a showcase for FLEXIBILITY, who was coming off a perfect-trip win in the Jerome Stakes four weeks earlier. But he regressed, and the bunched nature of the first four finishers – only two lengths separated them in a low-figure race – casts doubt on this whole field in terms of being Derby material.

Sunny Ridge prevailed after stalking and then wearing down VORTICITY. He raced outside that rival around the first turn and down the backstretch, was on even terms midway through the race, had to work hard to gain the advantage in midstretch, and gradually was edging away at the wire.

Vorticity, as in the Jerome, was game in defeat when finishing second, though he had less excuse this time, as the slow early pace certainly helped his cause. He led into the first turn, was head-and-head with Sunny Ridge from midway down the backstretch until the middle of the homestretch, and yielded in the final yards.

ADVENTIST, who was third, might have the most upside of this group. This was only his second start, his first around two turns, and his lack of experience was on display early, as he broke slowly and then raced greenly into the first turn to wind up about four paths wide. He raced outside of Vorticity and Sunny Ridge down the backstretch and around the far turn, was three paths wide on the far turn, couldn’t keep up with the top two in upper stretch, but bravely kept to his task through the lane, outfinishing Flexibility while trading a couple of solid bumps with that rival in the final furlong.

Flexibility, who finished fourth, was restrained going into the first turn despite the dawdling pace but then wound up in a ground-saving position behind the two leaders. The top two got away from him going around the far turn, and he was put to heavy urging a quarter-mile out, but after trading bumps with Adventist, he couldn’t outfinish that rival, let alone gain on the top two.

DONEGAL MOON, who was fifth, had been on or near the lead in prior races. Despite the slow pace, he was taken back to last in the early going here in an apparent tactical experiment. He followed Flexibility into the backstretch and around the far turn but could not make any impact and only passed a tired KING KRANZ in the stretch. He’s probably not this good, but being last in a slow-paced race when his prior races had him up close early didn’t help.

King Kranz, who was last of six, also had an odd trip. This was his first time around two turns after six sprints, and he had raced on or near the lead in his three prior races, yet he was throttled down heading into the first turn instead of seizing the lead in a slow-paced race. He checked slightly behind the leaders heading into the first turn, raced outside of Flexibility down the backstretch, was asked for his best with three furlongs remaining, could not keep up, raced on his wrong lead until midstretch, and faded. He likely needs to return to a sprint and certainly needs to be allowed to use his best weapon, his speed.