Although M M G Stables’ El Areeb was entitled to win Saturday’s $250,000 Withers (G3) at Aqueduct as the 1-2 favorite, the Maryland shipper did so in a way that elevated his profile as a Kentucky Derby (G1) contender.

El Areeb’s three previous wins had come in circumstances that left some questions about his prospects on the Derby trail. At his home base of Laurel Park, the Cathal Lynch trainee crushed his foes in wire-to-wire fashion in an October 15 maiden and again in the November 19 James F. Lewis III Stakes. Both of those were six-furlong sprints, and his display of high speed could have suggested distance limitations.

Shipping to Aqueduct to try a mile and 70 yards in the January 2 Jerome (G3), El Areeb dominated once again, this time by 11 1/4 lengths. But the Jerome was contested on a muddy, sealed track. Because some horses take to those conditions far better than others, “off” tracks can produce lopsided results. How much did the mud exaggerate his routing ability?

For his return trip for Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile Withers, Aqueduct’s inner track was fast. Now El Areeb left no doubts, and in the process, proved that he could employ more patient tactics.

Instead of setting the pace throughout as he did in his sprint romps, or tracking the leader closely as in the Jerome, regular rider Trevor McCarthy reserved El Areeb another spot back in third. That might not have been significant if the pace were fast, but it was slow. Given his natural speed, you might have expected El Areeb to be impatient, tug along, and want to get on with it.

On the contrary, El Areeb was a model student as he sat a couple of lengths behind splits of :24.29, :49.31, and 1:14.06. He was traveling strongly, signaling how much energy he had, but he wasn’t fighting for his head – a key to furthering his Derby hopes.

McCarthy waited longer to turn him loose, only driving him onward as they turned into the stretch. Despite covering extra ground out wide, El Areeb surged past pacesetter True Timber at the top of the lane and drew off by 4 1/4 lengths. Under a hand ride from McCarthy, who simply kept him on task, El Areeb ripped a final sixteenth in 6.17 seconds to complete the circuit in 1:44.47.

El Areeb, who earned 10 Derby points in the Jerome, doubled his total to 20 here. The gray colt sports a career record of 6-4-1-0 and a $334,200 bankroll.

True Timber saved second by a half-length from J Boys Echo. Considering that True Timber had rushed forward after a stumble at the start, he deserves extra credit for his effort. True Timber added 4 more Derby points and now has 6 (including 2 from his third in the Jerome). Third-placer J Boys Echo increased his point total to 3. Bonus Points earned 1 point for finishing fourth. Previously the Jerome runner-up, Bonus Points now has 5 Derby points altogether.

Bred in Kentucky by historic Dixiana Farms, El Areeb has a fine blend of speed from his sire, Exchange Rate, and stamina from his dam Feathered Diamond, a mare by Hall of Famer A.P. Indy. He was first sold to Eisaman Equine for $100,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September. Offered as a two-year-old in training at OBS March, he commanded $340,000 from his current connections.

The competition will get tougher for El Areeb from this point forward on the Derby trail, but he’s crying out for a challenge. 

Photos courtesy of NYRA/Coglianese Photography (top photo Susie Raisher, upper right by Chelsea Durand)