by Brian Bohl
After being purchased privately earlier this month, Our Braintrust will make his first start for new owner Gary Barber and trainer Mark Casse while also attempting to earn more Kentucky Derby qualifying points when he competes against a talented seven-horse field in Saturday's 139th running of the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers at Aqueduct Racetrack.
Offering 10-4-2-1 qualifying points for the "Run for the Roses" on May 4 at Churchill Downs, the Withers is the second of four races on the New York path to the Derby and will be broadcast live on FOX Sports Saturday At The Races, airing on FS2, and produced by NYRA. The live racing telecasts, which will feature more than 24 hours of coverage in 2019, begin Saturday with a2 ½ hour show that will also air the Grade 2 Holy Bull from Gulfstream Park and the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis from Santa Anita Park.
Both the television and live audiences at the Big A will see the return of Our Braintrust, who finished second by 1 ½ lengths behind Mind Control in NYRA's first Derby prep of the year in the one-mile Jerome on New Year's Day.
Following that race, which moved Our Braintrust's career record to 2-2-0 in four starts, Barber purchased the Freud colt from Maryland horseman and previous trainer Cathal Lynch and transferred him to Casse's care.
"Obviously, we haven't had Our Braintrust for very long, but he's done everything you can ask for," Casse said. "I thought he's worked well. It looks like he's pretty versatile. I know last time he came from off the speed. It's not an easy race. Everyone is trying to figure out where they fit in for the 3-year-old division. That's what you're doing in January and February; just trying to figure out who is going to mature from 2 to 3."
After winning his debut at 4 ½ furlongs last May at Laurel Park, Our Braintrust has run at longer distances in each subsequent race, including a victory in his second race in the 5 ½-furlong Tremont in June at Belmont Park. A runner-up effort in the seven-furlong Maryland Juvenile Futurity in December at Laurel was his first race in six months as he rested a nagging shin issue.
Casse will now stretch Our Braintrust out to two turns for the first time in the 1 1/8-mile Withers, carded as Race 9 with a post time of 4:30 p.m.
"I think that's an unknown for everybody," Casse said about the distance. "For us, the sooner you can find out those things, the better. I'd rather find out now and if he can't, we'll adjust and do other things. But until he proves he can't do it, we're going to try it.
"He's won as a sprinter and he can kind of do a little bit of everything," he added. "When the dust clears, his best fit may be the grass. We're still trying to learn more about him."
Jose Lezcano will pick up the mount, drawing post 6.
Tracy Farmer's Sir Winston has fared well at longer distances and will be shipping to Aqueduct for the first time after two wins and a third-place finish in his last three starts over Woodbine's Tapeta surface.
Like his stablemate, Sir Winston's appearance in the Withers will also contribute to Casse's fact-finding mission for his promising colts. The son of Awesome Again has improved his Beyer Speed Figures in each of his five career starts, including a 79 last out in a one-length win in the Display on December 8. He has been training in Ocala, Florida and doing well, according to Casse.
"Sir Winston is a mystery horse for us," Casse said. "He's performed well on the synthetic. He's been training over the dirt in Ocala and training well. We're not really sure how we'll run on the dirt."
Sir Winston's second career race was on the turf, finishing ninth on July 21 at Saratoga in his last non-Woodbine race. Casse said returning to the grass could be a possibility if the dirt track isn't favorable.
"We just want to see if he can handle the dirt and if he can't, we know he'll probably like the grass, he's run there before," Casse said. "It's all part of the puzzle and trying to figure out what pieces fit where."
Dylan Davis will be in the irons from post 2.
R.A. Hill Stable's Tax, claimed for $50,000 out of a maiden-breaking win on October 21 at Keeneland, will make his first start since running third in the Grade 2 Remsen on December 1 at Aqueduct.
Contested at the Withers distance, Tax, who was making his stakes debut in just his third start, stayed off the early lead in the Remsen and finished strong, hitting the wire just behind Network Effect and the winner Maximus Mischief. He earned a 93 Beyer, the highest of any Withers contender.
The Arch gelding will have jockey Junior Alvarado's services from the rail.
"He's bred to run all day, he's a well-bred horse," trainer Danny Gargan said. "Last time, we kind of chased the pace a little bit. This time, there should be enough pace in the race where we'll be able to sit off of it. Hopefully, we finish a little better. If we can get an effort like last time, we think we'll be all right."
Repole Stable and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners' Moretti will make his first stakes appearance. The Todd Pletcher trainee, who finished second in his debut on November 14 at Aqueduct before breaking his maiden at 1 1/8 miles on the same track on December 2, was purchased for $900,000 at the 2017 Saratoga Sale.
The Medaglia d'Oro colt is a half-brother to 2017 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile-winner Battle of Midway and will break from post 3 with Manny Franco set to ride.
The New York-bred Not That Brady, fresh off his win in the Damon Runyon on New Year's Eve, will make his 3-year-old bow for trainer Rudy Rodriguez, drawing post 7 with Reylu Gutierrez.
Two other first-time stakes starters, Admire, for trainer Dale Romans, and Lucky Lee, for trainer John Servis, will break from posts 4 and 5, respectively.