It's a good time to be trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. With Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner Alpha headed toward the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes (gr. I), top 3-year-old filly Questing (GB) coming of a scintillating score in the Aug. 18 Alabama (gr. I), and multiple grade I winner It's Tricky likely to start against last year's 3-year-old champion filly Royal Delta in the Aug. 26 Personal Ensign Stakes (gr. I)—but also cross-entered for the Aug. 24 Ballerina (gr. I) against Turbulent Descent—as the trainer put it, "We feel honored and privileged to see these horses looking over the webbing."
But don't confuse good times with easy times. McLaughlin has his hands full conditioning and placing top contenders for Godolphin Racing at Saratoga Race Course this season while keeping year-end goals like the Nov. 2-3 Breeders' Cup World Championships in mind.
Alpha has been the simplest call with a start in the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes (gr. I) next on the radar after the Jim Dandy win, but a racing strategy has yet to be exactly mapped out for the Bernardini colt who uncharacteristically won on the front end against six other sophomores last time.
"We'll see how we draw," McLaughlin said Aug. 21, looking forward to post position assignments which will be made Aug. 22 in the Saratoga paddock at 11:00 a.m. EDT. "We can be forwardly-placed or third or fourth, but I can see us first or second also if we draw inside. This will be a totally different race with 10 or 12 horses, and depending on wherever we draw, we might be fifth to eighth or might be laying first or second."
The 1 1/4-mile Travers will be Alpha's second start since a 12th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I); he went into that race highly-regarded off a runner-up finish in the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) and back-to-back wins in the Count Fleet and Withers (gr. III) at the beginning of the year. After the Derby, the 3-year-old missed a planned start in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) when he spiked a temperature.
"We were very disappointed at Churchill Downs but we had so many reasons for his poor performance," McLaughlin said. "It was very hot that day, very humid, and he just lost it in the paddock. He was very upset and washy and dripping wet and stepped on himself and lost a shoe... but he's really been doing great since he came up to Greentree (training center adjacent to Saratoga Race Course)."
Alpha rebounded from the disappointment of the Triple Crown series to follow the same path his sire took to a Travers triumph when he won the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy by two lengths in frontrunning fashion. Jockey Ramon Dominguez will have the mount in the Travers as he did in the summer prep.
"He's a great rider, he's got great hands, and he's a very smart rider, obviously," McLaughlin said. "He fits Alpha very well so we're happy to have him; he gets along with him very well."
If the Travers had been a month or so after the Alabama instead of the following weekend, McLaughlin said it could have been temping to start Questing there instead. That's just how good the Hard Spun filly is, although she will likely remain against company of her own kind going forward. Questing blazed to a nine-length victory in the 1 1/4-mile Alabama after reeling off splits of :22.84 and :46.01, finishing up in 2:01.29 while swerving her way down the lane.
"I think Questing is probably better than (Alpha) but hopefully we don't have to run her against colts; there's plenty of opportunities for fillies," McLaughlin said. "(The Alabama) was a 'wow' experience, just a freakish race. We thought she would run very well, but to run like that was unexpected by all around her, and to see her win like that you almost had to pinch yourself and say 'Is this really happening?' Questing has just been freakish on the dirt in all three races this year. She didn't give us an indication she was going to be able to run like this on the dirt, we're just lucky to have put her over it."
Questing took the Alabama off a 4 1/4-length score in the TVG Coaching Club American Oaks (gr. I), a race McLaughlin won last year with It's Tricky.
The latter filly, a now 4-year-old daughter of Mineshaft , beat Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) victress Plum Pretty by 3 3/4 lengths in the CCA Oaks, a race in which Royal Delta was third, after taking the TVG Acorn Stakes (gr. I) over Turbulent Descent. She then followed up with a string of seconds to Royal Delta in the Alabama and to Plum Pretty in the Cotillion Stakes (gr. II), and again to Royal Delta in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (gr. I) at the end of the year.
"They've beat each other earlier in their careers at different times, and it's a pretty special rivalry to have them both doing well and continue to race on as 4-year-olds; it's nice to see them both running and doing well," McLaughlin said of his filly and Royal Delta, who is trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott.
Royal Delta started the season with a bit of a rocky start, stumbling at the start of the Sabin Stakes (gr. III) before finishing eight lengths behind Awesome Maria, then shipping to Dubai where she ran ninth against males in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on Tapeta in March. The Empire Maker filly is two-for-two since returning from a rest; she took the June 16 Fleur de Lis Handicap (gr. I) by eight lengths at Churchill Downs, and won the Delaware Handicap (gr. II) last time out July 21. It's Tricky is unbeaten in 2012, with victories in the Top Flight Handicap (gr. II), Distaff Handicap (gr. II), and Ogden Phipps Handicap (gr. I).
"It's Tricky has really come on a lot this year as far as her mind; I think she's matured a lot and filled out—she looks stronger." McLaughlin said. "She's undefeated at one turn and she did win (going) seven-eighths this year," McLaughlin said. "Her best race of her life might be the Acorn at a mile, but the mile and an eighth isn't a problem. Questing could be a Breeders' Cup (Ladies' Classic) filly and It's Tricky could go back to seven-eighths."
McLaughlin ranks second at the current Saratoga meet by purses won, with $1,147,283. Three of his five victories at the Spa this season came courtesy of Alpha and Questing in graded stakes. He wouldn't mind adding another grade I to the list this weekend.
"To see that Travers canoe painted in Godolphin colors would be fabulous," he said.