ELMONT, N.Y. -- It is only fitting that Alpha's serious Kentucky Derby preparations concluded at Belmont Park Saturday morning. That's because, as with many places the striking bay colt found himself this season, Belmont wasn't where he was intended to be.
Talking to Kiaran McLaughlin, you'd have no clue. After his charge's five-furlong workout :59.54 over the training track at the Long Island oval, the trainer sounded like a man whose runner had just completed the final steps of a precisely-executed plan.
"All systems go," McLaughlin confidently declared.
If only it had really been that simple.
* * *
The tumult for Alpha began immediately following his victory in the Grade 3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack on Feb. 4. The young son of Bernardini had already won the Count Fleet Stakes the previous month to start his season after flashing promise as a 2-year-old the year before (he broke his maiden by six lengths at Saratoga and followed that with a runner-up effort in the Grade 1 Champagne behind Union Rags).
The colt's connections were debating whether or not to run Alpha back in the next Derby prep race at Aqueduct, the March 3 Gotham, or rest him until the final prep there -- Wood Memorial on April 7 -- and ultimately decided to wait for the latter. So McLaughlin sent Alpha to his winter base at Palm Meadows Training Center in South Florida to train in the interim.
Alpha fell just a neck short to Gemologist in a performance that many feel makes him a prime contender to take home the Roses.
This left the colt with only enough time for one pre-Derby start -- a problem considering he sorely needed graded stakes earnings to qualify for the Derby field. Matters were further complicated because McLaughlin wanted to steer clear of the heavy hitters on the Derby trail -- horses like last year's reigning 2-year-old champion Hansen.
McLaughlin's plan was to run Alpha in the March 31 Florida Derby. The highly regarded Union Rags loomed large in the race, but there were very few challengers lined up behind him -- meaning the colt stood a good shot to secure at least the second place share of $200,000. But with the addition of prominent contenders El Padrino and Take Charge Indy, McLaughlin turned his attention back to the Wood and a date with Hansen.
When top contender Gemologist decided to contest the Wood, McLaughlin entertained yet another option -- the April 1 Louisiana Derby -- but Hansen decided to skip the New York race in favor of the Blue Grass, leaving the door open for Alpha to collect that race's healthy second-place check.
"It was just us talking," said McLauhlin of Alpha's ever-changing itinerary. "He wasn't affected by the re-routing. He didn't know."
The horse's effort in the Wood certainly seemed to validate this school of thought. Alpha fell just a neck short to Gemologist in a performance that many feel makes him a prime contender to take home the Roses.
Count Jason Blewitt, in-house analyst for the New York Racing Association, among those impressed by Alpha's run that day. He compared the Alpha-Gemologist stretch battle to the one staged in the 2003 Wood Memorial between Funny Cide and Empire Maker. Blewitt believes Alpha has a puncher's chance to do what Funny Cide did that year -- lose the Wood, but win the Derby.
"I thought it was a solid effort," Blewitt opined. "He had trouble going into the first turn. It was a case of some bad things happening to him early on. But in the end, I thought some good things happened to him. Regarding the Derby, if you like Gemologist, you have to like Alpha."
McLaughlin was forced to alter Alpha's course once again after the Wood -- as the colt sustained a laceration on his left foreleg during the race that became infected. As a result, the trainer skipped a planned flight to Kentucky to keep Alpha at Belmont Park. Alpha also missed one of his two scheduled works, leaving Saturday morning's breeze as the only one for the colt between races.
* * *
It has certainly helped Alpha to have had the experienced hand of McLaughlin guiding him through these rocky past few months. McLaughlin finished second in the Derby with Closing Argument in 2005, got a dead-heat for fourth with Jazil in 2006 (the same year Flashy Bull ran 14th), and was 11th with Soldat last year. He's no stranger to the bigtime, having won the Belmont Stakes with Jazil in 2009 and the Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup in 2007 with Invasor.
That last event is particularly special to the 51-year-old conditioner, who lived and trained in Dubai for ten years. McLaughlin's connection to Dubai would make winning the Derby with Alpha -- who is owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's Godolphin Stables -- all that much more special.
"It's an honor and a privilege to train for Godolphin," McLaughlin stated proudly. "I lived in Dubai for ten years. It's great to be able to train for them."
In the past, Godolphin has shipped their best 3-year-olds to Dubai to contest the UAE Derby in preparation for the Kentucky Derby (Godolphin's seven Derby starters have never even hit the board in the big race; Worldly Manner was 7th in 1999, China Visit 6th and Curule 7th in 2000, Express Tour 8th in 2001, Essence of Dubai 9th in 2002, Regal Ransom 8th and Desert Party 14th in 2009). This year, however, Godolphin altered course, electing to keep their premier sophomores stateside. According to McLaughlin, the installation of the synthetic racing surface at Meydan Racecourse -- the UAE Derby host track -- is a big reason for the change.
"This is the first year that they've opted to keep the 3-year-olds here, because of the change of surface, maybe," he hypothesized. "It's hard to know if they handle the tapeta there whether or not they'll be able to handle Churchill Downs. So we're trying something different this year, and hopefully, we'll have a great chance to win the Derby."
Godolphin's new approach may account for some of the reason many believe Alpha is a threat to win the Derby, but McLaughlin's horsemanship is a big part of the equation as well. His success since going out on his own after serving as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas from 1985-1992 has gained him a great deal of respect from both fans and peers alike.
McLaughlin said he draws from the example of Lukas' hands-on approach to apply techniques that help his runners today -- including Alpha. He believes the colt's apprehension at the starting gate prior to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is what contributed to his lackluster 11th-place finish in that race, and has been schooling all winter after designing a program to teach Alpha to relax in the gate.
McLaughlin's assistant, Art Magnuson, has been heavily involved in this effort.
"He stood in the gate on Thursday," Magnuson said. "He's been really, really good. We just need to keep it going."
"We've been taking him to the gate a lot," McLaughlin added. "We've been schooling him and schooling him and we feel like that [issue] is behind us. I just feel like he had a bad day [in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile]. Draw a line through the race."
* * *
Today's work was not a gate work, but as the standalone pre-Derby move, it was obviously of paramount importance. Like little else on Alpha's eventful road to the Derby, it seems to have gone smoothly.
"He worked very well," McLaughlin said. "It was a little bit faster than most of our horses work, but he's only having this one work in between races so we wanted a good, solid, five-eighths."
He worked very well. It was a little bit faster than most of our horses work, but he's only having this one work in between races so we wanted a good, solid, five-eighths.
”-- Kiaran McLaughlin, Alpha's trainer
Jockey Rajiv Maragh was aboard for the work and concurred with McLaughlin's assessment.
"He started up nice and comfortable, and finished up really good," Maragh stated. "It seems like he's right on target."
As with seemingly everything in Alpha's universe, the colt's jockey situation is in flux. Maragh is the leader in the clubhouse to inherit the mount in the Derby since big-time rider Ramon Dominguez opted to stay aboard Hansen, but McLaughlin is waiting to see if any other jockeys become available at the last minute.
"We're waiting 'til after the weekend," he said. "I'm talking with [Godolphin Stables racing manager] Simon Crisford over in England to firm up the jockey. If we entered this morning, Rajiv would be riding. But we just want to see if any other jockeys come open over the weekend."
Undaunted by all the bumps in the road, the connections have mapped out an ideal Derby week -- which stands to begin for Alpha on Monday when he arrives in Louisville.
"We'll look at him [tomorrow] morning, make sure he's perfect," the trainer said. "Then we'll plan on shipping Monday morning."
But if the 2012 Derby season has taught Kiaran McLaughlin anything, it's that he should always be ready to implement Plan B.
-- Additional reporting by Claire Novak
Joe DePaolo is a freelance writer whose coverage of thoroughbred racing and entertainment has been featured by numerous different outlets. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.