Pletcher Represented by Speed Runner and Khanate in G3 Withers

February 1, 2024

Speed Runner breaks his maiden Dec. 8 at Aqueduct (NYRA/Coglianese)

NYRA Press Office

OZONE PARK, N.Y.— Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher will be represented by a pair of contenders in Speed Runner and Khanate as he looks to secure his fourth win in Saturday’s Grade 3, $250,000 Withers, a nine-furlong test for sophomores, at Aqueduct Racetrack.

The Withers, a prep race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, will award the top-five finishers 20-10-6-4-2 qualifying points, respectively, towards the prestigious Grade 1 test on May 4 at Churchill Downs.

Pletcher previously won the Withers with Harlem Rocker [2008], Revolutionary [2013] and Far From Over [2015]. Revolutionary followed up his Withers score with a win in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby before closing from deep to finish third to the victorious Orb in that year’s Kentucky Derby.

Whisper Hill Farm’s Kentucky homebred Speed Runner has made both of his career starts in maiden special weights at the Big A, finishing a good third on debut in October in a seven-furlong sprint won by Billal, who will feature in Saturday’s Swale at Gulfstream Park.

The Gun Runner chestnut stretched out to nine furlongs on December 8 and utilized a prominent trip under returning rider Jose Lezcano to post a neck win over Malarchuk with Withers rival Society Man a further 4 1/4-lengths back in third.

“He’s always been a forward-training colt. I thought he ran respectably in his debut which was probably a little short of his ideal distance,” Pletcher said. “He seemed to make a move forward going a mile and an eighth in his second start. We felt like after stretching out around two turns, it just made sense to wait for the Withers. He’s trained well and he needs to continue to improve like all of them do at this stage.”

Speed Runner will exit the inside post under Lezcano.

“I think he has tactical speed. Jose can play it off the break from the rail and see where he is,” Pletcher said.

Speed Runner, a half-brother to Grade 1-winner Brilliant Speed and graded stakes-placed Souper Speedy, is out of the Gone West mare Speed Succeeds, who is a half-sister to graded stakes-winner Serenading and multiple graded stakes-placed Handpainted. His third dam, Passing Mood – a daughter of Canadian Hall of Famer Cool Mood – produced 1997 Grade 1 Belmont Stakes-winner Touch Gold.

Calumet Farm’s Khanate, a dark bay son of their stakes-winning stallion Hightail, will look to make amends from a distant third-place finish in the Jerome where he stumbled at the start before attending the early pace.

The $35,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase, out of the stakes-winning Any Given Saturday mare Mongolian Shopper, graduated by 10 1/2-lengths at third asking sprinting seven furlongs in a restricted maiden in October at Keeneland. He exited that effort to finish sixth in a 1 1/16-mile optional-claimer in November at Churchill ahead of his Jerome effort.

“He’s one we were expecting a little more from in his first couple of starts, so we were pleased to see him deliver what we were seeing in the mornings,” Pletcher said of the Keeneland score. “Things didn’t go smoothly at Churchill, but he made a nice middle move the other day [in the Jerome] before flattening out. Hopefully, getting back around two turns is going to help him. He’s another one that going that far he could probably have tactical speed.”

Khanate will exit the outermost post 9 under Eric Cancel.

“I don’t think he minds being out in the clear,” Pletcher said. “Sometimes, you’re a little concerned getting hung out too wide in the mile and an eighth races at Aqueduct, but it should work out. He’s been a pretty good gate horse, so hopefully he can get away alertly and get into a good rhythm.”

The Withers, named in honor of prominent 1800’s owner and breeder David Dunham Withers, predates the Kentucky Derby by one year with its inaugural running taking place in 1874. Coincidentally, the following year’s Withers was won by Aristides who also captured the very first running of the Kentucky Derby in 1875. Four other horses have both Withers and Kentucky Derby victories on their resume including Triple Crown winners Sir Barton [1919] and Count Fleet [1943] as well as Zev [1923] and Johnstown [1939].

Pletcher will be represented by five 2023 Breeders’ Cup alumni in stakes company on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, including Life’s an Audible [8th, Juvenile Turf] in the Grade 3 Sweetest Chant; Scalable [5th, Juvenile Fillies] in the Grade 3 Forward Gal; Noted [9th, Juvenile] and Agate Road [5th, Juvenile Turf] in the Grade 3 Kitten’s Joy; and Champion 2-Year-Old Colt Fierceness [1st, Juvenile] in the Grade 3 Holy Bull, which offers 20-10-6-4-2 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top-five finishers.

Fierceness Juvenile Santa Anita 11 3 2023 (Ernie Belmonte/Past The Wire)
Fierceness going, going, gone in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Ernie Belmonte/Past The Wire)

Repole Stable’s Kentucky homebred Fierceness graduated by 11 1/4-lengths over muddy and sealed footing in his August debut traveling six furlongs at Saratoga Race Course. The impressive score garnered a lofty 95 Beyer Speed Figure.

The City of Light bay faltered to seventh-of-8 as the odds-on favorite after lunging at the break over a sloppy and sealed surface in the Grade 1 Champagne in October at Belmont at the Big A, but returned to winning form with a powerful 6 1/4-length score in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on November 3 at Santa Anita to register a 105 Beyer. The runner-up of that event, Muth, returned to win the Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita last month, while the Pletcher-trained third-place finisher Locked is a well-regarded Derby prospect.

“We were super happy with the result and looking at the race now, it was very impressive,” Pletcher said. “It was a really strong group of colts – Muth has come back and won since, and we still hold Locked in high regard. For him to win that emphatically against that field is hopefully a sign that he’s extra special and can continue to do that and move forward.”

Pletcher said Fierceness has trained forwardly at Palm Beach Downs for his seasonal debut in Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile test, including a bullet five-eighths breeze in 59.48 seconds on January 20.

“He’s had a really good winter. He came to Palm Beach Downs after the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and settled in well,” Pletcher said. “We mapped out a schedule with the Holy Bull in mind as his first start and knock on wood everything has gone according to plan. He’s had some impressive breezes and we’re looking forward to getting the season started.”

Hall of Famer John Velazquez retains the mount from post 7.

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