If Alpha ever figures out his gate issues, watch out. That's how trainer Kiaran McLaughlin feels about the talented son of Bernardini, who will be heavily favored on Saturday in the grade III Withers Stakes at Aqueduct.
Whether or not he can do that remains to be seen. If he can, the colt figures to be a major player on the Triple Crown trail. If he can't, it won't be for lack of trying.
"We've been schooling him and he does great, but he seems to know the difference between the morning and the afternoon," McLaughlin said. "He gets a little worked up in the afternoon. Hopefully he gets better and better with those issues.
"He's always done everything right; it's just the gate issues. He won his first start by six lengths. He ran better than we thought; it was an eye opener. (When he first started training) he had some really good works out of gate, but would break awkwardly and out. We keep working on it with him."
When asked if Alpha was his best 3-year-old, McLaughlin, who will nominate at least a half dozen horses to the Triple Crown, without hesitation said yes. A win in the Withers wouldn't necessarily mean that Alpha would remain it New York for his next set of Derby preps, McLaughlin said, but it would give the connections a lot of options. There is a possibility that he could be sent to Florida for his next race. Godolphin owns the bay colt.
"We have no plans past Saturday," McLaughlin said. "We'll take it one race at a time. If he wins impressively, we'll talk with Simon Crisford of Godolphin and make a plan."
In his last three starts Alpha has had gate issues. He broke awkwardly in the grade I Champagne Stakes on October, forcing him to rally from well back to finish a distant second to Union Rags. The Breeders Cup Juvenile was a disaster from the start, as he was fractious in the gate on his way to a disappointing 11th-place effort. And even in the Jan. 7 Count Fleet, which he won handily by 2 1/2 lengths in his season debut, Alpha bobbled at the break before recovering nicely.
"He was worked up in the Count Fleet too," McLaughlin admitted. "We're happy to have Ramon Dominguez (for the Withers), who has kind, soft hands. We'll let him do his thing and hopefully the horse gets better. He drew a great post. He doesn't have to be in there long being seven of seven."
The uncertainty about what to do with Alpha after the Withers lies in part due to the fact that Godolphin's other top 3-year-old, Consortium, ran a clunker in last week's Holy Bull at Gulfstream, finishing nearly 20 lengths behind the winner in the slop. McLaughlin said it's going to take some time to reevaluate where he stands.
"We liked Consortium until he ran terrible last week," McLaughlin said. "We're going to hope it was the slop, but we're going to see how he is training on. We were disappointed for sure, even if he didn't like the slop. It was not a good day for Consortium."
For what it's worth, I think Alpha will handle the Withers field just fine, giving him an additional $120,000 in graded earnings and leaving Godolphin with plenty of options. There doesn't seem to be much in there that he can't handle, unless How Do I Win gets loose on an easy lead or Gulfstream Park Derby third-place finisher King Kid takes a big step forward.
In the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita, I look for Bob Baffert's other horse, Sky Kingdom, to upset Liaison and Rousing Sermon. Both of the favorites are entering off layoffs, while Sky Kingdom already has a win at the distance, over the track, three weeks ago. His sizzling work on Jan. 27 signals that he's ready for another big one.
In the Sam Davis I give Prospective a good shot, despite his outside post. The Mark Casse trainee recovered from a bad start to win the local Pasco Stakes three weeks ago and shows only a toss out race on a heavy Churchill racetrack in the Breeders' Cup as his lone bad effort in five starts. If it's not him, it will probably be State of Play or Ecabroni.
Who do you like?