Cal Lynch liked El Areeb when he first saw him a little more than a year ago. The gray colt, barely a 2-year-old, was training forwardly at Eisaman Equine in Florida and Lynch put the son of Exchange Rate on the list for the coming Ocala Breeders Sale. In March, the trainer spent $340,000 on behalf of client MMG Stable, and added a potential star to the barn at Laurel Park.

“Nice horse, did everything right, he had a lot of stuff I liked,” said Lynch Thursday. “He had a lovely way about him and they said they never got to the bottom of him at the farm. I wasn’t sure we could afford him but the owner (Mohammed Al-Gadhi) said, ‘If you like him, buy him.’ ”

To reward all that confidence, El Areeb lost his first start by 8 1/2 lengths as the favorite at Parx Racing in June.

“It was a long ride home from Philly for everybody in the car,” Lynch said with a laugh. Of course, it’s easy to laugh now as El Areeb rides a three-race winning streak into Saturday’s $250,000 Withers at Aqueduct. Bred by Dixiana Farm, he’s 6-5 in a field of 10 for Lynch and jockey Trevor McCarthy. Lynch blamed the debut loss on bucked shins and backed off for the rest of the summer. El Areeb returned in late September and finished second in the slop at Laurel, but hasn’t lost since – taking a 6-furlong maiden Oct. 15, adding the 6-furlong James Lewis III Stakes Nov. 19 and throttling six others by 11 lengths in the Grade 3 Jerome at Aqueduct Jan. 2.

The shins were part of the story, but so was maturity.

“Mentally, more than anything, he improved,” said Lynch. “He’s a big dude, he acted precocious and we figured he was one of our better 2-year-olds at the time. He bucked shins a little bit on us the first time and then we just took our time, let him come around and it’s paid off.”

Saturday, it could pay off again as the Withers awards 10 Kentucky Derby points to the winner. El Areeb is the only three-time winner in the race, which includes the two horses behind him in the Jerome (Bonus Points and True Timber). The former, a Maryland-bred racing for Three Diamonds Farm and trainer Todd Pletcher, makes his seventh start at 12-1 with Manny Franco on board. Calumet Farm’s True Timber breaks from the rail at 8-1 for Kendrick Carmouche and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The son of Mineshaft broke his maiden Dec. 10 and completed the Jerome trifecta at 22-1.

Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown runs recent maiden winner Apartfromthecrowd, who is 5-1 for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. The son of Gio Ponti made his debut at Saratoga, didn’t run again until December and graduated the maiden ranks by 4 lengths Jan. 14. Pletcher also entered Fillet Of Sole, who exits a November maiden win at Parx. Rajiv Maragh takes the ride at 10-1. McLaughlin runner Always a Suspect makes his first start beyond 6 furlongs for Antonio Gallardo. The son of Exchange Rate won a $62,500 maiden claimer in October, added a starter allowance in November and finished second in the Lost In The Fog Stakes last out on New Yer’s Day.

The Dale Romans-trained J Boys Echo is the second choice at 4-1. The Mineshaft colt, a $485,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase, finished fourth in the Delta Downs Jackpot in November and ships in from Gulfstream Park. Robby Albarado has the mount from post 10.

Fair Hill Training Center-based Square Shooter (12-1, Frankie Pennington) is unbeaten in two starts for Gold Square and trainer Mike Lerman. The $125,000 OBS April purchase won his debut Nov. 1 going 6 1/2 furlongs and added a 7-furlong allowance Dec. 11. Two-time winner Small Bear and recent New York-bred winner Jaime’s Angel complete the field.

“He’s still got to go over there and do it,” Lynch said of the Withers. “There are some new shooters – Mike Lerman’s horse, Todd’s got one, Kiaran sending one out of the sprint to try and go early. It will be a fast track too, so we’ll see. A few things are varied there, but good horses overcome obstacles.”

Withers Facts (from NYRA Press Notes)
The race was first run in 1874, when a horse named Dublin was victorious, and a year later it was captured by Aristides, the horse who won the very first Kentucky Derby.

In 1919, Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, took the Withers and the following year it became one of the 20 wins in 21 starts by the immortal Man o' War. 

The Withers' most recent classic victory came from Bernardini in 2006. Trained by Tom Albertrani, Bernardini won the Withers April 29 in his third start and stakes debut and then three weeks later posted a 5 ¼-length victory in the Preakness. Named at year's end as the champion 3-year-old male, he reeled off successive victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup before finishing second as a 6-5 favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic.  

Other champions who numbered a Withers win in their Eclipse Award-winning seasons include the great sprinter Housebuster, who took the 1990 edition of the then Grade 2 one-mile race at Belmont Park.

Years earlier, the value of the Withers was seen in 1953 when Native Dancer rebounded from a defeat in the Kentucky Derby - his lone loss in 22 starts - with a four-length win in the Withers that preceded his victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

In 1943, Count Fleet raced in the Withers during his Triple Crown sweep. He cruised to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness then scored in the Withers prior to romping by 25 lengths in the Belmont Stakes.

Jaipur, the champion 3-year-old male of 1962, won the Withers and then three races later captured the Belmont Stakes by a nose. In August of that year, Jaipur defeated Ridan by a nose in the Travers in one of the sport's greatest duels.

In 1969, Ack Ack won the Withers via disqualification but did not compete in any of the Triple Crown races. In 1971, he became the first Horse of the Year in the Eclipse Awards era.

In 1967, Dr. Fager's 3-year-old campaign started too late to include a Triple Crown race. Yet in his second start of the year, he once again demonstrated the brilliance that would be a hallmark of his legendary career by recording a 6-length score in the Withers. The following year, Dr. Fager was honored as a champion in four categories, including Horse of the Year - making him part of an exclusive club of great 3-year-olds who used the Withers as a ladder to future success and made it one of New York's more renowned stakes for more than a century.