Alpha Male

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Kiaran McLaughlin watched his Kentucky Derby dream slip away.

“We lost the race before the race,” the trainer said. “I went to the paddock with 88 minutes to post, I sat down on a bench and was waiting. Alpha came in with 20 something minutes to post, I felt like he was a popsicle melting right before my eyes.”

Godolphin’s Alpha withered in the paddock and finished 12th in the Derby, beaten nearly 20 lengths by I’ll Have Another.

“He got really bothered about everything,” McLaughlin said. “He had excuses, having the bridle on for an hour before the race, it was 100 degrees in the paddock. Everybody had to do the same thing, but he didn’t handle it well.”

Five weeks later, McLaughlin was readying Alpha for the Belmont Stakes when the son of Bernardini spiked a fever and was forced to miss the third leg of the Triple Crown. McLaughlin took the blow like a seasoned horse trainer, spinning the negative into a positive.

“His fever finally broke but we decided we had to pull the plug,” McLaughlin said. “I said when it happened, it might be a blessing in disguise, we’ll have a fresh horse in the summer and fall.”

Like mother’s milk.

Alpha returned to the races with a dominant win in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, leading every step in the 9 furlong stakes July 28.

Four weeks later, the four-time winner returns as the 5-2 morning line favorite in today’s $1 million Travers, the 12th race on a star-studded lineup. Nobody is ducking Alpha as 10 rivals take him on the 10-furlong classic, including Neck ‘n Neck, Liaison, Atigun and Fast Falcon who followed Alpha in the Jim Dandy, California invader Nonios for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and Curlin one-two Street Life and Five Sixteen.

The long-striding colt hasn’t missed a beat since the Jim Dandy, training like a soldier for exercise rider Rob Massey. He’s breezed twice over the main track, posting nearly identical half-mile breezes in 48 and change Aug. 9 and 17.

Filled out across his back and over his hip since the Derby disaster, Alpha is poised to take over the 3-year-old division which has been decimated by the retirements of Derby winner I’ll Have Another, Derby/Preakness runner-up Bodemeister, Belmont winner Union Rags and the summer postponement of Haskell winner Paynter.

Sometimes, the last man in the bar gets the girl. 

“I don’t know how he would have run in the Belmont, but he’s a better horse now. We sent him up here and he’s done very well,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve trained him on both tracks but mainly on this main track, he’s thrived up here. He’s straightforward, always done everything right. We had a little problem at the gate last year, he kept breaking awkwardly and we might have overdone it, bringing him back, he gets a little anxious in there, he’s a real pleasure to train and the Jim Dandy was a great win.”

Jockey Ramon Dominguez turned the Jim Dandy into paint by number, easing Alpha to the lead from the inside post, slowing down the fractions (going 6 furlongs in 1:14), splashing slop on his seven rivals and kicking away to a comfortable win.

“It’s always a good thing when your jock comes in the paddock and he thinks and says exactly what you were thinking,” McLaughlin said. “He broke like a bullet and answered our questions, the numbers, the class, where we are, off track, he answered everything. I don’t worry about him being aggressive (this time), I just want him forwardly paced, if he’s in front going the same fractions, he’ll go a mile and a half like that.”

– Sean Clancy

– Thursday morning, Jerry Hollendorfer’s assistant Christina Jelm and exercise rider Lorna Chavez sat on a wooden picnic table outside Wesley Ward’s barn, their feet rested on the bench seat. Travers starter Nonios circled the outdoor walking ring just a few feet away, ready to go out for his first gallop around Saratoga after a long flight from California. He was in his usual gear, drop noseband, D-bit, tongue tie and leather rings. He was tall, dark and handsome with a star right smack in the center of his forehead. His chart may read dark bay or brown colt, but he’s as close to black as you can get. Black Beauty’s long lost twin.

Nonios, Chavez and the lead pony made their way to the track on the paved road near Clare Court. Jelm followed closely behind and gave Chavez instructions on the walk.

Jelm and Nonios went their separate ways as they neared the track, Nonios toward the gap by the Morning Line Kitchen, Jelm to the starting gate to let them know Nonios was en route. The Kentucky-bred colt jogged to the gate, entered, stood with his ears pricked, just as a good horse should do.

Nonios’ owners, Green and Kathy Smith, wanted to make the transition from Greyhound racing to Thoroughbred racing. Jelm, an already established bloodstock agent, helped them find their first superstar at the OBS April Sale in 2011. He walked into the ring and Jelm immediately knew he would be something special.

“Sometimes it can be difficult to choose horses because you are looking at conformation, then pedigree, it’s tough to choose heart,” said Jelm. “You sometimes just have to guess, but (Nonios) had heart. He just had an obvious look and presence.”

And just like that, with the sound of the gavel, the Smiths purchased their first 2-year-old for $73,000.

By Pleasantly Perfect and out of a Touch Gold mare, Nonios has proven himself against a talented crowd. He broke his maiden first time out at Golden Gate Fields by 2 1/4 lengths in February. From there, the 3-year-old colt has been on the sweet road of success. His first big win came in the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park when he beat Liaison. Nonios has two solid runner-up performances in the Grade 2 Swaps and the Grade 1 Haskell behind Paynter. John Velazquez will ride the second choice for the first time.

– Gabby Gaudet

– As Neck ‘n Neck walked from Ian Wilkes’ barn in the back of Clare Court to the main track for a light gallop Friday, Wilkes accompanied the Flower Alley colt through the brisk morning air just as the first rays of sunlight broke through the clouds. Fog spilled from the infield onto the dirt track, making horses’legs all but invisible, their visible breath only adding to the allure of another morning at Saratoga.

At 6:20, Neck ‘n Neck galloped past the three-quarter pole as swiftly and gently as the infield American flag fluttering in the light breeze. Only a few minutes behind Alpha’s morning gallop, Neck ‘n Neck trotted back to the entrance to the main track near the Morning Line Kitchen awake, alert and ready.

Wilkes has a simple plan for tracking down Alpha in the Travers, the only horse to finish ahead of Neck ‘n Neck in the Jim Dandy.

“Outrun him,” said Wilkes. “I’m talking about just outrunning him at the finish. It’s a different race. I know (Alpha) will be close to the lead. It’s a different race. A mile and a quarter, mile and an eighth, they are two different types of races. The one thing I can control is my own horse and he is doing good. Now it’s up to Leandro Goncalves. When the gates open it’s all about the pace scenario and where you are in the race and then you just have to ride from there.”

A. Stevens Miles’ colt rode a two-race win streak into the Jim Dandy after victories in an allowance and in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes, at Churchill, Neck ‘n Neck just couldn’t quite dig in and get a grip over a sloppy and sealed track the day of the Jim Dandy, finishing 2 lengths behind Alpha.

“I expected him to run good, and he did,” said Wilkes. “I was just second best that day. Ramon and Kiaran summed up the situation and went to the lead, an easy lead in a sloppy track. Their horse loved the slop. My horse, he laid close enough, I was only 2 1/2 lengths off of him. Made a run at him at the top of the stretch, just not enough.”

With the weather forecasted to be 84 degrees and sunny, expect the track to be lightning fast, a situation that Wilkes believes gives him an advantage.

After his gallop, Neck ‘n Neck stood in the corner of his stall. Wilkes walked past, he stopped and peered in the stall.

“He’s tucked away in the stall, preparing for the Travers,” said Wilkes.

– Ryan Jones

– Early Friday morning, Golden Ticket and Atigun walked single file as they made the long trip from Ken McPeek’s barn in the Oklahoma Annex, through the maze of barns on the Oklahoma side, across Union Avenue, around the far turn, through the Saratoga backyard and finally into the paddock. It was a long trip, but both Travers runners stayed patient and collected the entire way. After a short school in the paddock, the duo headed to the main track for a light gallop, entourage in tow.

Golden Ticket enters the Travers off a 3 1/2-month layoff. One of two Speightstown colts in the race, Golden Ticket stretches out to 1 1/4 miles for the first time. David Cohen gets the mount for the first time, as the Magic City Thoroughbred Partners colt breaks from post three.

“We backed into this race with Golden Ticket,” McPeek said. “He was entered in an allowance race 10 days prior to the Travers that we had been pointing to all summer and it didn’t fill; it only had two horses. Then we entered in the Bernardini Stakes, which was supposed to be run Friday, and it didn’t fill. He has been working bullets and Hansen backed out so we went for it. The horse is just doing good.”

McPeek’s other entry in the race, Atigun, is certainly more versed when it comes to the big stage than his counterpart. The Travers marks the third Grade 1 for the son of Istan. Third in the Belmont in June, Atigun next appeared in the Jim Dandy, using the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 as a prep for the Travers. After a disappointing sixth behind fellow Travers contenders Alpha, Neck ‘n Neck and Liaison over a sealed and sloppy track, the Shortleaf Stable 3-year-old gets an extra furlong to work with today. Mike Smith ships in from Del Mar for his first ride aboard Atigun.

– Ryan Jones