Dennis Drazin’s homebred Sunny Ridge enhanced his Kentucky Derby (G1) status in Saturday’s $250,000 Withers (G3), prevailing by three-quarters of a length over Vorticity in the 1 1/16-mile race on Aqueduct’s inner track.
Flexibility, who was favored at 1-2 off a victory in the January 2 Jerome (G3), saw his reputation take a hit in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series race, which offered points on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the top four finishers.
After garnering 2 points apiece for runner-up finishes in the Champagne (G1) and Delta Jackpot (G3) last fall, Sunny Ridge increased his total to 14 on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
His connections are fortunate they didn’t lose him the first-time out as Sunny Ridge made his career debut in a $40,00 maiden claiming race at Monmouth Park in late June, winning by a neck. He followed with a seventh in the Sanford (G3) at Saratoga before rebounding with a 2 ¼-length victory in the Sapling at Monmouth Park in early September.
Sunny Ridge advanced to a short lead in upper stretch of the October 3 Champagne but was overhauled by Greenpointcrusader, who drew away to a 4 ½-length decision in the slop at Belmont Park. Sunny Ridge wound up a clear second and just missed in the November 21 Delta Jackpot on a muddy track, dueling through the stretch with Exaggerator before finishing a neck back on the wire.
Bred in New Jersey, the gray gelding returned a 70-day freshening and was keen at the start, showing speed from his far outside post among six rivals. Vorticity sped forward after a rough start to take the lead entering the first turn and Sunny Ridge settled nicely in second, tracking the pacesetter through marginal opening splits in :24.56 and :49.81.
New jockey Manny Franco gave Sunny Ridge his cue rounding the far turn and his mount advanced to near even terms through six furlongs in 1:14.70. Sunny Ridge moved past his rival after straightening for home, sticking a head in front with a furlong remaining, and maintained a slight advantage to the finish line.
“Heading into the race we wanted to be close to the leader,” Franco said. “We knew our horse has a lot of speed. Thankfully, the race setup for it to unfold that way and we took it from there and it worked out good. He’s a real grinder, he has one pace and likes to run all day. I definitely like him going further.”
Off as 7-2 second choice, Sunny Ridge paid $9.50 to win and stopped the teletimer in 1:46.99 on the fast oval.
Vorticity, the 5-1 second choice following a non-threatening second in the Jerome, battled gamely to the wire and wound up a length clear of December 19 maiden scorer Adventist, who got up on the far outside to finish third in only his second start. Flexibility, who rated in midpack and came under an early ride from Irad Ortiz Jr., lacked the necessary late kick in the stretch drive and checked in a disappointing fourth.
Donegal Moon and King Kranze came next. Cards of Stone was scratched.
By 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull, Sunny Ridge is the first stakes winner out of the Songandaprayer mare Lignum Vitae. He counts Grade 2 winner Bodacious Tatas as his third maternal dam.
Servis was asked about future plans.
“We’ll nominate for the Gotham (G3) (on and we’ll nominate for the Wood (Memorial [G1] on but we’ll probably do (only) one of them,” the conditioner said.
Sunny Ridge has now earned $524,752 from a 6-3-2-0 record.
Photo courtesy of Chelsea Durand/Adam Coglianese Photography