Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Derby Hopeful: Alpha

It was a bumpy ride that led to many forks in the road, but the end of the trip is near. The destination looms in the form of a dirt oval below the Twin Spires in Louisville, Kentucky. The rough trip is the road Alpha took to the Kentucky Derby (GI), a journey that was full of confusion and many decisions. But finally, the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee is less than two weeks from contesting in the Run for the Roses.

Alpha was among the most impressive juvenile maiden special weight winners at the prestigious Saratoga meet, settling off the leaders before going to the lead in the stretch and drawing away to a remarkable 6-length victory. With his imposing win, he defeated the future graded stakes-placed Timely Tally and the Sham Stakes (GIII) second-favorite Hierro.

His breathtaking debut convinced McLaughlin to send the Darley homebred to the esteemed Champagne Stakes (GI) at Belmont Park, in which the colt was sent off as the second choice behind the talented graded stakes-winning Union Rags. Settling near the back of the pack, the colt made an impressive move around the far turn before swinging wide in the homestretch to close in on the leaders. However, he could not keep up with the spectacular Union Rags, finishing 5 ¼ lengths behind the then-undefeated colt. In defeat, Alpha beat the stakes-winning horses Laurie’s Rocket and No Spin, as well as the multiple graded stakes-placed Power World.

Alpha continued along the trail many top juveniles take, finding himself at Churchill Downs in November for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI). As the final horse, Optimizer, loaded into the starting gate, Alpha reared and caused much ruckus in the gate. Once jockey Garrett Gomez climbed back aboard, the thirteen-horse field broke from the gate. Despite finding a good stalking position, the colt faltered to finish eleventh, beating just two horses in the very contentious race. However, it was discovered that the colt had bled. In spite of his terrible luck, Alpha still managed to defeat the future grade two winners Daddy Long Legs and Prospective.

Alpha before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile
Photo by Mary Cage
Alpha had a turn of luck when he began his sophomore career, making his first start of 2012 over the inner oval at Aqueduct in the ungraded Count Fleet Stakes. Going a mile and seventy yards, Alpha had a bit of a rough break from the gate, but recovered to garner a position in third before making a move on the outside to waltz to a 2 ½-length victory. Finishing behind him was a half-brother to a classic winner, the winners of one graded stakes race and two ungraded stakes, and runners that would go on to place in three graded stakes and one ungraded stakes altogether.

The Darley homebred continued his winning ways at Aqueduct next out, effortlessly winning the mile and one-sixteenth Withers Stakes (GIII) over many of the same horses he had defeated in the Count Fleet. Yet again, the bay colt performed with a stalking position.

Then came the chaos. It was decided that the colt would not make his next start until either the end of March or early April, but that put many possible races into the picture, including the Florida Derby (GI) at Gulfstream Park, the Louisiana Derby (GII) at the Fair Grounds, and the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) at Aqueduct. Since he was training in Florida, it appeared as if Alpha’s final prep for the Kentucky Derby would come in the Florida Derby, but then it was announced that he would likely go to the Louisiana Derby. His connections changed their minds again and finally it was decided that his final start before the Kentucky Derby would come in the Wood Memorial.

In the Wood, Alpha faced the toughest field he’d faced yet in 2012. After breaking from the rail, the colt was forced to steady slightly around the far turn when squeezed, but then comfortably settled off the leaders. Meanwhile, the undefeated graded stakes winner Gemologist rated in third for the majority of the race. Around the far turn, both colts made their move, but it was Gemologist that hit the front first. Alpha was then taken off the rail and swung wide by Eclipse Award-winning jockey Ramon Dominguez and as Gemologist appeared to draw away from the field, Alpha dug in on the outside and drew even with the undefeated colt and just when it seemed as if he would accelerate past him, Gemologist found more and denied him. Nonetheless, Alpha displayed an incredible amount of heart, determination, and acceleration.

The colt suffered a minor setback due a laceration he received in the Wood, but he soon returned to training and will mostly train up to the Kentucky Derby at Belmont Park before shipping to Churchill Downs. Though it was originally planned that Alpha would have two works over the Churchill surface prior to the Derby, he will perform his penultimate breeze at Belmont before shipping to Churchill on April 30 to have his final work there.

Beyond just his obvious racing talent, Alpha is certainly bred for Triple Crown distances as well. By the winner of three grade ones at a mile and three-sixteenths or longer in the classic-winning son of A.P. Indy, Bernardini, Alpha has the same sire as the Travers Stakes (GI, 10F)-winning Stay Thirsty and the grade one-winning Pennsylvania Derby (GII, 9F) victor To Honor and Serve.

The dam of Alpha is the eleven-furlong Oaks Trial Stakes-winning Munnaya. The chestnut mare is by the 1970 English Triple Crown winner, Nijinksy II, who is also the damsire of the Belmont Stakes (GI, 12F)- and Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI, 10F)-winning Colonial Affair, the Epsom Oaks (GI, 12F)-winning Jet Ski Lady, and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (GI, 10F)-winning Archipenko. Munnaya, out of the group stakes-winning Hiaam, is also the dam of the multiple graded stakes-winning Lavender Sky, the stakes-winning and multiple group stakes-placed Mystic Melody, and the listed stakes-placed Numaany.

Featuring two crosses of Northern Dancer, Alpha possesses the same inbreeding that occurs in the pedigrees of the Derby victors Mine That Bird and Big Brown, as well as 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and the recent Belmont winners Ruler on Ice, Drosselmeyer, and Summer Bird.

The fifth dam of Alpha is the Reine De Course mare Nangela, a stakes-winning daughter of Nearctic. She is the dam of the champion Square Angel and the second dam of the stakes-winning and graded stakes-placed Dancing on a Cloud, the grade one-winning Love Smitten, and the graded stakes-winning Minutes Away. Other direct descendants of Nangela include the multiple group one-winning champion Swain, as well as the grade one-winning horses Cuddles, Gorgeous, and Swift Temper. This strong dam line stems from female family fourteen, which has yielded such horses as the champions Artax, Invasor, Foolish Pleasure, and Skip Away.

This year’s running of the Kentucky Derby features one of the toughest fields we’ve seen in years, but Alpha is certainly part of the elite group pointing towards the Run for the Roses. Not only is he clearly a colt with immense racing talent and the important qualities of determination and the ability to settle off the pace, but his pedigree is full of stamina. He appears to be a colt that will be successful throughout the entire Triple Crown should all go well. Alpha has proved himself to be one of the very top contenders for the one hundred thirty-eighth running of the Kentucky Derby.

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