Once upon a time, the Withers (G3) at Aqueduct was a prestigious spring classic nearly on par with the Triple Crown races. It was not uncommon for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners to use the 1-mile race as a prep for the Belmont Stakes; Sir Barton (1919), Omaha (1935), and Count Fleet (1943) managed to find time during their successful Triple Crown campaigns to compete in the Withers as well.
The Withers was inaugurated in 1874, one year before the Kentucky Derby, and has been held at five different racetracks during its long history. Dozens of high-class horses have graced the Withers winner’s circle, including Hall of Fame champions Man o’ War (1920), Native Dancer (1953), Dr. Fager (1967), and Ack Ack (1969).
But times change, and by the 2000s the Withers had slipped sharply in prominence. Fewer high-class horses were competing in the Withers, which carried a purse of just $150,000, and it slipped from Grade 2 to Grade 3 status in 2000.
With the race no longer relevant as a spring classic, the New York Racing Association elected in 2012 to shift the Withers to early February, gradually restructuring the event into a 1 1⁄8-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race offering 10 qualification points to the winner. The purse received a boost as well, reaching $250,000 in 2014.
The results of these changes have been impressive. During the 2010s, eight Withers participants qualified for the Kentucky Derby, including the 2013 winner Revolutionary, who battled to a third-place finish under the Twin Spires.
Also of note, in 2019 Sir Winston used a fourth-place finish in the Withers as a springboard to victory in the Belmont Stakes, following in the hoofprints of Sir Barton, Omaha, Count Fleet, and others. The takeaway? No matter the date or the distance, you can count on the Withers to produce talented runners on racing’s greatest stages.
By J. Keeler Johnson