Haskin's Derby Trail: What's it all About, Alpha?

As of today, or better still, as of this hour, Alpha is running in the Wood Memorial (gr. I)…again. If Alpha was a person planning a vacation, he’d have a room full of brochures from different places and probably would be driving his travel agent batty.

No one can claim the Alpha Adventures have been boring, and he hasn’t even gone anywhere.

It is apparent that trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and owner, Godolphin Racing, are trying everything in their power to either assure that Alpha wins his final Derby prep, or has the easiest race possible. At this point he ranks 13th on the graded earnings list and has pretty much secured a spot in the starting gate on May 5. To give him the best chance to win or have an easy go of it they have changed their plans on several occasions and have finally opted for the Wood Memorial, for now. It is the catalysts for the constant changes that make them so interesting and in some ways amusing. In short, their decisions are based on nothing more than what other horses are doing.

There is no way of knowing until the first Saturday in May if the path of least resistance is the best path to prepare him for the Kentucky Derby. Their thinking could be, with Alpha’s distance-oriented pedigree and his two-month vacation, it makes more sense to wait until the 10 furlongs of the Derby to take on the likes of Union Rags, Hansen, El Padrino, and Gemologist.

Let’s go way back to immediately following his victory in the Withers Stakes (gr. III) when it was assumed and even hinted that Alpha would naturally make his next start in the Wood Memorial after taking a break from the Derby trail and sunning himself for two months down in Florida. But with the horse already in Florida, it was decided to run instead in the Florida Derby (gr. I).

Everything seemed to be right on schedule until Union Rags did a great impersonation of Spectacular Bid and decimated his foes in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) without raising a sweat. That got McLaughlin and Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford wondering if it would be wise to take on Hercules in their final Derby prep. Their mind was made up for them when another of the Derby favorites, El Padrino, changed his plans and set his sights for the Florida Derby instead of the Louisiana Derby. No way Team Alpha was going butt heads with two of the top 3-year-olds in the country, so it was back to the Wood Memorial, where they would only have to face last year’s 2-year-old champ Hansen, who was coming off an impressive victory in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III). This wasn’t exactly going to be an easy task, but a much better alternative than the Florida Derby, as far as winning the race.

No sooner had they made that decision when trainer Todd Pletcher, as he had done with El Padrino, threw a monkey wrench in their plans again by announcing that the undefeated Gemologist was heading for the Wood Memorial following his stroll-in-the-park romp in an allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream. Bye, bye Wood Memorial. Once again, Pletcher had chased Alpha out of his intended race. That left Plan C.

So, instead of vanning to Gulfstream from Palm Meadows, as originally intended, and instead of flying to New York, which was Plan B, Alpha was all but booked on a flight to New Orleans to fill the vacancy left by El Padrino in the Louisiana Derby.

But then came word that Hansen’s connections had changed their plans and were now pointing the champ to the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) on Polytrack, rather than travel back up to New York. They also were looking for the easiest path. Before you could say “Big Easy to Big Apple,” Alpha was back in the Wood. Of course, if Union  Rags should fail to make the Florida Derby, he would change course yet again.  Wherever he winds up, this no doubt will be the most indecisive, yet entertaining, Derby campaign in memory.

The question is, will so many changes of plans hinder Alpha’s chances in the Kentucky Derby? As defensive as Team Alpha’s strategy might be, they really have done nothing from a travel standpoint and a timing standpoint to suggest they have compromised his chances in any way on May 5. It’s more fascinating in its unusualness than anything else. If Alpha were human he might be getting an inferiority complex from ducking so many horses, but because he has no idea what’s going on he still has the same chance of winning the Kentucky Derby as he did two months ago. It all comes down to whether he’s good enough.

Oh, and by the way, as far as their latest change, Team Alpha might be interested to know that there has been only one Louisiana Derby winner (Grindstone) to win the Kentucky Derby in the past 86 years, for whatever that’s worth.

As for Godolphin, it is understandable if they want to handle Alpha with kid gloves, having already lost the immensely promising Out of Bounds and the talented Consortium to injury. They have been trying to win the Derby for over a decade and finally have figured out the right way to go about it. Alpha has the right running style, the right pedigree, and the right trainer. We can’t add the right jockey, because we don’t know who that jockey is going to be. They are so intent on winning the next race they keep naming jockeys who as of now are riding more accomplished horses in the Derby, whether it’s Ramon Dominguez or Julien Leparoux, who have had just as much trouble keeping track of Alpha’s plans as anyone. Horses can and do win the Derby with first-time jockeys, but it is still preferable to have a rider aboard who knows the horse.

Alpha also will be going into the Kentucky Derby off only one race in 13 weeks, but McLaughlin nearly pulled that off with 71-1 shot Closing Argument in the 2005 Kentucky Derby and won the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Invasor off a three-month layoff after the colt missed his prep in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) due to a virus. Last year, Alpha finished second to Union Rags in the grade I Champagne Stakes in only his second career start. So, McLaughlin knows how to get a horse ready for a big race off minimal racing.

Regardless of what you might think of his chances on May 5, there is no denying that Alpha is one of the more interesting horses on this year’s Derby trail, and a victory for McLaughlin and the Maktoum family would be a crowning achievement for one of the longest and most loyal relationships in racing.

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