Horse For Course

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Trish McLaughlin leapt at the screen like she was spiking volleyballs. Kiaran McLaughlin snapped his fingers like he had a firecracker in his sleeve. Neal McLaughlin screamed like he had missed the last bus. Tom Ward ricocheted off of them like the floor was on fire.

Alpha and Flat Out hit the wire, Team McLaughlin turned and embraced in a whirling ring of bedlam. It was the perfect margin, close enough to get lost in the moment, but not close enough to lose the moment.

Kiaran screamed, “Yesssssssss.” It hung in the air.

Alpha and John Velazquez played with Team McLaughlin through the 9 furlongs of the Woodward, Saturday’s featured Grade 1 stakes. The 4-year-old colt beat the gate, eliciting a whoop from his connections. Then he posted a quarter mile in :24.46, that prompted looks of approval. He opened up 2 lengths going down the backside, that built quiet confidence. Turning for home, he spurted, Trish leapt at the screen, the rest of the team yelled for the horse, for the jockey. Then Flat Out collared Alpha, it looked doubtful, then Flat Out drifted and Alpha kept plugging, it looked hopeful. Flat Out came back to him, they matched strides and fought to the wire. Officially, it was a head.

The crowd erupted, then fled to the winner’s circle. Behind them, Kiaran McLaughlin regained his composure, “Wow, what a big win. Wow.”

Bred by Darley and owned by Godolphin Racing, the son of Bernardini returned a year and a week after finishing in a dead heat in the Travers. He had lost six in a row in between.

And traveled the world to do it.

A month after the Travers, he failed to fire in the Pennsylvania Derby. In November, he finished last in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. By February, he was in Dubai, finishing last again, this time in the Al Maktoum Challenge. At the end of March, with blinkers for the first time, he improved to wind up fifth in the Godolphin Mile. Returned to the U.S., he flopped in the Suburban, finishing 7 ¼ lengths behind Flat Out. Earlier in the meet, he lagged early and finished sixth in the Whitney.

McLaughlin went to work, returning the blinkers that seemed to help in Dubai and tabbing Velazquez after he became available when Todd Pletcher decided to wait with Whitney winner Cross Traffic.

Seven horses entered the $750,000 stakes. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned withdrew after returning lame behind after a gallop. Friday rain deleted Whitney third Mucho Macho Man. That left five. California shipper Paynter went off the favorite, based more on his Haskell win from last year than his most recent second to Kettle Corn in the San Diego. Flat Out, making his first start since winning the Suburban in July, was second choice. Whitney runner-up Successful Dan came next in the betting. Whitney fourth Ron The Greek went off 4-1. And Alpha rounded out the betting at 7-1.

Aboard for the first time, Velazquez planned to see how Alpha liked the slop in the post parade.

“I told them I was going to go by myself and give him a good warm up to see how he felt on the slop,” Velazquez said. “I started with the pony, I said, ‘You know what, he feels great, he might run off with me.’ He was light on his feet already, I said, I’m going to save that for the race.”

Notoriously bad in the gate, Alpha made it his ally at 5:46 Saturday afternoon.

Alpha walked into the outside slot, turned his head to the right while standing patiently as his handler climbed on the ledge to his left. Alpha turned his head to the left, like he was checking on Paynter, then glanced right, turned his head straight, took a step forward and bang, in one stride, the Woodward was his.

“When the door opened up, he was gone man. I’m telling you, he was gone. The door opened, he was out of there,” Velazquez said. “I wasn’t even ready for it, the guy said, ‘no, no, no.’ The other one said, ‘no.’ The doors opened, I almost fell back, thankfully, I jumped forward with him or he was going to sit me in the saddle. Awesome. That’s the only way you can describe it.”

For Paynter and the rest, it was anything but awesome.

Alpha nullified Paynter’s best weapon, angling over and forcing Rafael Bejarano to urge the four-time winner to try to find a position, now stalking instead of leading his rivals over the sloppy going. Alpha skipped into the first turn, well off the rail as Flat Out and Paynter matched strides in second and third. Successful Dan, laboring for the first few strides, found a spot in fourth as late-running Ron The Greek lagged. Alpha breezed through the easy first quarter and a half in :48.20.

“He was loving it. Loving it,” Velazquez said. “He was moving so comfortable, I was like, ‘they’re going to have to run to catch this horse.’ He gave me the confidence that it was there, because he was going well and I was testing him a little, to see if he was going to give it to me.”

Leaving the backside, Velazquez allowed Alpha to lengthen his stride and lengthen his lead. After three quarters in 1:11.57, Alpha lobbed along as Flat Out began to muster a rally, Paynter retreated, Successful Dan treaded water and Ron The Greek had a mountain to climb.

At the quarter pole, Flat Out swooped from the outside. For a moment, the 7-year-old veteran looked like he was going to run past the frontrunner. But only for a moment. Like a boot in a doorway, Alpha countered the move. Ears pinned, Alpha dug in as Velazquez raised his whip right-handed. Alvarado recognized the moxie, switched his whip to his left hand and angled Flat Out wider, trying to get away from Alpha’s range. It didn’t work, Alpha kept digging, straight and true to the wire. Alvarado switched his whip to his right hand and angled left, but the advantage was established and Alpha wouldn’t relent.

Alpha finished 9 furlongs in 1:49.28, earning his sixth victory in his 16th career start and increasing his earnings to $1,772,500.

“I always thought he was a very nice horse, always knocking on the doors, but he was very unlucky sometimes, the way he behaved in the gate, sometimes he doesn’t break well, and then he has too much to make up,” Velazquez said. “When I picked up the mount, I started looking, I thought I’m not going to do anything different but I’d love to sit a little bit closer than normal, it seems like when he’s closer, he runs better. When I talked to Kiaran in the paddock, they encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, you take your chances, if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

It worked.

Ramon Dominguez engineered two sweet trips for Alpha last summer, leading every step to win the Jim Dandy and stalking throughout to win the Travers. Since those two wins, nothing went right for Alpha. He looked like a tired 3-year-old at the end of the season last year, two losses. The Dubai experiment yielded little, two more losses. Freshened for a summer campaign, he failed to make any impact in the Suburban and Whitney, two more losses.

“Maybe I underestimated his fitness or the fitness he needed coming back from Dubai. Coming up to this, he was fit and ready and we had feelings like last year going into the Jim Dandy and Travers. We all said he couldn’t be doing any better,” McLaughlin said. “Rob Massey gets on him every day and I was getting good feedback from him. We knew we were sending over a horse in good form. You don’t know if he’s good enough to run against horses like that, but it’s nice to be confident in your horse. You feel good for the horse when he wins a race like that.”