by Brian Bohl
Earlier in the week, trainer Danny Gargan said Tax was "bred to run all day," and the Arch gelding proved his connections prophetic, surging up the rail to overtake Our Braintrust and Not That Brady in deep stretch to win the Grade 3, $250,000 Withers by a head on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack.
The 139th running of the Withers was the second of four races on the New York path to the Kentucky Derby, awarding Tax 10 qualifying points for the Run for the Roses on May 4 at Churchill Downs.
Owned by R.A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable, Tax broke from the inside post as the 2-1 favorite, staying off the pacesetter Not That Brady, who led the seven-horse field through an opening quarter-mile in 23.56 seconds, the half in 47.39 and three-quarters in 1:11.44 on the main track labeled fast.
Out of the turn, Not That Brady maintained the lead as Our Braintrust challenged to his outside. The duo bumped slightly in the stretch while Tax, under encouragement from jockey Junior Alvarado, kept gaining ground from the inside, taking command near the sixteenth pole and completing 1 1/8 miles in a final time of 1:50.27, finishing a head of Not That Brady.
"He ran really good today. I think down the backside, he got a really good education," Gargan said. "Junior said he was really impressed with him. He said he kind of got stuck down in there and clipped heels a couple of times.
"I'm happy with the fact that he learned and got in there and got an education. We're going to get into bigger fields as this goes down the road further."
Tax returned $6.20 on a $2 win wager. He more than tripled his career bankroll to $186,300 and increased his Derby qualifying points to 12 after earning two with a third-place finish last out in the Grade 2 Remsen on December 1 at the Big A.
"I was hoping the hole would open up and I got lucky and got through," Alvarado said. "He responded right away when we got the space, it was just enough for him. When we got to the lead at the sixteenth pole he started waiting again for the horses. He's a big guy, but mentally he's not 100 percent in the game yet. He's still learning and today was a great learning experience for him."
Tax has never finished off the board in four starts, notching two wins, a runner-up effort and a third-place finish. He has two wins in three starts going longer than a mile.
"He wouldn't have any problem going a mile and a quarter," Alvarado said regarding a potential start in the Derby. "The company will definitely be tougher, he'll have to step up his game, but I think he still has more there."
Not That Brady, trained by Rudy Rodriguez, edged the Mark Casse-trained Our Braintrust by a neck for second, earning four points for the runner-up finish. Casse lodged an objection against Not That Brady for the bump in the stretch, but there was no change to the order of finish, with Our Braintrust garnering two points for third.
"I think my horse ran a fantastic race. As his rider, I kind of take the blame for his loss. I think I could have closed the rail more," said Reylu Guiterrez, the jockey aboard Not That Brady. "The Rudy Rodriguez team, the exercise riders, and grooms did a fantastic job. This one is on the rider, this is not on the horse and the team."
Not That Brady, bred in New York by KatieRich Farms, arrived at the Withers off an impressive three-length win in the Damon Runyon. Co-owned by Rodriguez with Michael Imperio and Lianna Stables, the Big Brown chestnut has finished first or second in each of his last four starts.
Sir Winston, also trained by Casse, picked up one point for finishing fourth. Admire, Moretti and Lucky Lee completed the order of finish.
NYRA has two more "Road to the Kentucky Derby" races on its stakes calendar, including the Grade 3, $300,000 Gotham on March 9, offering 50-20-10-5 points. The last and most prestigious Derby prep on the NYRA circuit is the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 6, which awards points on a 100-40-20-10 basis and could also offer a $1 million purse if any previous Grade or Group 1 winner is declared an official starter in the race.
Live racing will return Sunday at Aqueduct with a nine-race card highlighted by the $100,000 Busanda for 3-year-old fillies that offers the 10-4-2-1 points structure for the Kentucky Oaks. First post time is 12:50 p.m.