Future Looks Bright for Withers Winner Sunny Ridge
By John Piassek
Sunday, January 31, 2016
On the road to the Kentucky Derby, everyone always expects to see a few types of horses in the point standings. There’s the Pletcher horses in the East, and the Baffert horses in the West. Most of the others are rounded out by the same big owners, and the same big trainers, ridden by the same big jockeys. Certainly, the odds of a New Jersey-bred gelding with a small-time owner, a claiming trainer, and a revolving door of jockeys being on anyone’s Derby radar screen are remote.
Yet, this year, such a horse exists. With his win in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday, Sunny Ridge has vaulted himself to the forefront of the Kentucky Derby conversation. He is, if nothing else, a shock to the system, given just about everything about him is unconventional.
For one, he was bred in New Jersey. Only two Jersey-breds have ever won the Kentucky Derby, the last one being Calvacade, way back in 1934. The last one to even try the race was Dance Floor, who finished third in 1992. Just by making it into the starting gate, Sunny Ridge would be bucking a 24-year trend. He’s also a gelding, unable to breed. Mine That Bird in 2009, Funny Cide in 2003 and Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 are the only three geldings in the last 90 years to take home the roses.
His connections are also unique. The owner, Dennis Drazin, is best known as part of the group that owns Monmouth Park, Darby Developments. He’s not a big-time owner, however, and his horses made just 24 starts in 2015 (five of them by Sunny Ridge), and Sunny Ridge’s start in the Withers marks his only starter of 2016 to date. The trainer, Jason Servis (not to be confused with John Servis, who trained 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones), is a well-known trainer among everyday horseplayers, but he’s best known for claiming horses, not budding stars like Sunny Ridge. As far as the jockey goes, Sunny Ridge has had plenty of them, from Manuel Franco to Junior Alvarado to Irad Ortiz to Nik Juarez – none of whom have sniffed Kentucky Derby glory.
On top of all that, he made his debut for a $40,000 maiden claiming tag at Monmouth Park. Clearly, a horse like that being offered for $40,000 at first asking is not one who had high expectations at the start of his career. Yet, he hasn’t just exceeded expectations, he’s shattered them.
Even though Sunny Ridge didn’t truly burst onto the Derby scene until his Withers victory, he had run well beforehand. His first stakes victory came in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park in September (the last Sapling winner to run in the Derby was Bet Twice in 1987), in his third lifetime start. Off that victory, he went off at 23-1 in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont. Despite the bettors disregarding him, he ran well in that race, pressing the pace from the outside and taking the lead into the stretch, only to have Greenpointcrusader pass him late.
Off that second-place finish, he may have been a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he was not a nominee for the race. Rather, he was sent to Delta Downs, for the $1,000,000 Jackpot Stakes. Facing off against heavily favored Exaggerator, fourth in the Juvenile, Sunny Ridge once against pressed the pace wide throughout, losing a tough stretch duel to Exaggerator. He was then put away in preparation for his 2016 debut.
A trend was building with Sunny Ridge. He didn’t have any flashy races or big wins but he grinded everything out, fighting hard and placed in every races. Unlike other horses, who make headlines with big morning workouts, Sunny Ridge galloped one or two miles once a week, eschewing long workouts. His most recent workout before the Withers—four furlongs in :55.4 seconds—left racing fans baffled. As such, they backed the more fashionable Derby candidate, Jerome winner Flexibility, in the Withers, sending him off at 1-2 odds. Sunny Ridge was dismissed as the 7/2 second favorite.
However, Sunny Ridge once again defied all expectations. He pressed front-runner Vorticity throughout the race, then made his move on the turn. He never kicked away from Vorticity, but held him off long enough to win by ¾ of a length. The race was good enough for an 87 Beyer speed figure—not as good as the 95 earned by media darling Moyhamen in the Holy Bull Stakes—but nonetheless respectable for his first race of the season.
Drazin and Servis continue to manage their expectations with this horse. In post-race interviews, they maintained that their ultimate goal with Sunny Ridge was the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth on July 31, a race that no Jersey-bred has ever won. According to them, Sunny Ridge will only run in the Derby if they think that he has a chance to win. They also noted that the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of the Triple Crown, would be a fine alternative should Sunny Ridge not be up to Kentucky Derby snuff.
Still, right now, Sunny Ridge is in a great position. On the Kentucky Derby point standings, Sunny Ridge currently ranks third, with 18 points. Only Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist and the aforementioned Moyhamen currently rank higher. Those horses are owned by Paul Reddam and Godolphin Stable, respectively, each of whom have had plenty of exposure on the Derby stage. Sunny Ridge is definitely the odd man out as far as those horses go.
Regardless of what he does the rest of the season, Sunny Ridge has already gone above and beyond his call of duty. Whatever happens from here on out—especially if it includes a blanket of roses—would just be icing on the cake for this Jersey-bred star.
John Piassek is a student at Loyola University in Maryland. He prides himself as a supporter of racing in New Jersey and Maryland. John is an aspiring race track announcer, marketer and writer. His “Mid-Atlantic Musings” column on DanonymousRacing.com focuses mostly on NJ and MD racing, ways to market them, how the states can improve their racing, and how racing should start focusing on bettor-centric marketing.
You can follow John on Twitter @Theyreoff.