01/30/2016 4:30PM

Withers victory doesn't mean Sunny Ridge will target Kentucky Derby

Debra A. Roma
Manny Franco guides the New Jersey-bred Sunny Ridge to a three-quarter-length win in the Withers.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Trainer Jason Servis does not have Derby Fever. But his New Jersey-bred gelding Sunny Ridge is trying to change his mind.

After a solid 2-year-old season, Sunny Ridge kicked off his 3-year-old campaign with a gritty - it not particularly fast - three-quarter length victory over Vorticity in Saturday’s Grade 3, $250,000 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct. It was a length back to Adventist, who got third by a neck over Flexibility, the 1-2 favorite based on an impressive performance in the Jerome four weeks ago. Donegal Moon and King Kranz completed the order of finish.

Sunny Ridge, a son of Holy Bull, won for the third time in six starts. At 2, he won the Sapling and finished second in both the Grade 1 Champagne and Grade 3 Delta Jackpot.

Since owner Dennis Drazin is part of the group that owns Monmouth Park, the major objective for Sunny Ridge this year is the Haskell in August.  In talking about the Triple Crown, Servis seemed to think the Preakness might be a smarter goal than the Kentucky Derby.

The Withers was worth 10 qualifying points toward the Derby and Sunny Ridge now has 18 points.

“I know the hype is going to be unbelievable but you know the Derby is 20 [horses] and the Preakness is always eight or nine,” Servis said. “Run in the Wood, run good, then skip the Derby and run in the Preakness. I’d be okay with that.”

In a race that surprisingly had no pace, Sunny Ridge, breaking from the outside in the six-horse field under Manny Franco, wound up pressing Vorticity through a half-mile in 49.81 seconds and six furlongs in 1:14.70.

At the five-sixteenths pole, Sunny Ridge put a head in front but had yet to be asked. Sunny Ridge and Vorticity, under Jose Ortiz, were inseparable until the sixteenth pole before Sunny Ridge was able to edge clear.

Sunny Ridge covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.99 - the slowest of five Withers run at this distance - and returned $9.50 as the second choice.

“He likes to run all day,” Franco said. “He responded good. He kept going. He never gave up.”

Noting that Sunny Ridge is on the thin side, Servis said he would likely run him in either the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham on March 5 or the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial on April 9, but not both.

Regardless, Sunny Ridge will remain at Belmont Park for the foreseeable future. He has been training at Belmont since early December.

Meanwhile, Flexibility ran the worst race of his career, finishing fourth, beaten two lengths.

The fast pace he took advantage of in the Jerome was non-existent in the Withers. With the slow early pace, Flexibility was a bit rank early as Irad Ortiz Jr. took a strong hold of him going into the first turn. He was stuck on the inside down the backside and bumped with Adventist in upper stretch. Flexibility, as he has done before, began to get out in the stretch, bumping again with Adventist.

“I had an inside position. I think that cost me a better [finish],” Ortiz said.”I was stuck there and had to wait a lot. He’s the kind of horse you have to let him do his thing. Passing the half-mile, I couldn’t do anything. The pace didn’t help.”