Alpha and Golden Ticket, forever linked after their historic draw in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 25, could meet again in another $1 million race, the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) at Parx Racing Sept. 22.
The morning after the Travers at Saratoga Race Course, the trainers for the two Travers-winning colts said the Pennsylvania Derby could be next.
Kiaran McLaughlin, who conditions Alpha for Godolphin Racing, said both the Pennsylvania Derby and the $1 million TVG Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational (gr. I) Sept. 29 at Belmont Park are under consideration for the son of Bernardini .
Ken McPeek, trainer of Golden Ticket, who was sent off at 33-1 in the Travers, could also show up in the Pennsylvania Derby after finishing on even terms with the 2-1 favorite. Golden Ticket was a supplemental entrant in the Travers.
Alpha previously won the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga and has risen to the top of the depleted 3-year-old ranks nationally with his Travers win.
Making McLaughlin's first Travers victory more meaningful was Alpha's bumpy road to his first grade I triumph. Previous attempts had not gone smoothly. The colt was second to eventual Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Union Rags in last year's Champagne (gr. I) at Belmont after gate trouble. The bay colt also had major gate issues when 11th in the Grey Goose Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.
Alpha exited a neck loss to Gemologist in the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct Racetrack in April with a laceration on his left foreleg. The injury became infected and delayed his departure for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), in which he finished 12th after getting hot in the paddock.
Pointed for the Belmont Stakes, Alpha developed a temperature 10 days out and McLaughlin was forced to skip the race and change course again.
"He's just done this in the last 90 days," McLaughlin said while pointing upward. "It has been amazing. It worked out perfectly what we planned after (his) being sick. We shipped him up here on June 2, and this is what we wanted to do. It doesn't always work that way, so it was great that it did. The plan came together.
"In the paddock yesterday, he never turned a hair, and that's what we were worried a little bit about. At the gate he was great. So, he has matured and has done extremely well up here. He just didn't do well in Kentucky. Getting sick before the Belmont is a blessing, looking back."
McLaughlin said Alpha came out of the Travers feeling "great" and he is prepared to go on with him.
"I spoke to Simon (Crisford, Godolphin's racing manager) yesterday evening," McLaughlin said. "He asked me, 'What would be the most logical spot?' And I said, 'Well, the Pennsylvania Derby is in one month, and it's straight 3-year-olds for $1 million, the same day as Questing's going there (for the grade I Cotillion).' It's a likely choice. Then you have the Jockey Club Gold Cup the next week. It's older (horses), but that's the other spot to talk about, with the Breeders' Cup then the next stop."
Since Alpha has thrived in Saratoga, McLaughlin said he would like to keep the colt at Greentree Training Center for the time being.
Meanwhile, McPeek, like McLaughlin, was a contented man after Golden Ticket staked a share of the first Travers dead-heat finish since 1874.
"I know it's a cliché, but it's the classic win-win situation," said McPeek, who grew up in Lexington and played in midget football leagues in the mid-1970s with McLaughlin. "Kiaran's path and my path are so different. He went to work with (Wayne) Lukas and had that experience and met so many peopleI .
"I did it the hard way, at River Downs and Latonia, but I learned my lessons. It's great to reach the mountain after having been down so low. I was living in a $50-a-week bungalow I split with somebody in 1985."
Golden Ticket, owned by Magic City Thoroughbred Partners, wasn't even being pointed to the Travers. Off a good second in an allowance in May at Churchill Downs, McPeek had plans to run the Speightstown colt in a Saratoga allowance, which didn't draw enough entries. Then the same thing happened with the Bernardini overnight stakes.
"We had been watching this horse train, and Danny Ramsey, who has a really good talent galloping for me, was telling me how good he was doing," McPeek said. "He went 59 and change over the Oklahoma track and that was faster than I've had any horse work there. He went 59 there and that's like 57 anywhere else."
So McPeek supplemented Golden Ticket into the field as a separate entry from Atigun, who ran fourth in the Travers. Golden Ticket was surprisingly in contention and shot through a hole along the rail turning for home when tiring leader Speightscity drifted out. He was a length in front, but Alpha caught up with him in the last couple of strides.
Atigun, forced to check when Street Life abruptly began to slow down because of a minor injury, found running room after going five wide on the far turn and finished strongly.
"Atigun, he got stopped," McPeek said. "He could have won that race. He had to go outside, but he ran a great race in his own right. Atigun cleaned up his feed tub and Golden Ticket didn't. He's a little tired."
McPeek said Atigun might next take on his elders in the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup.
Trainer Nick Zito, who's fast-closing Fast Falcon was beaten by a neck while third in the Travers, took a philosophical view of the race.
"You can see (the photo finish) and the dead heat, and you see our horse, Fast Falcon, right in the picture," Zito said. "The good thing is that he'll be part of history. That was good."
Fast Falcon, after trailing the field in 11th after six furlongs, had his momentum briefly stymied behind the faltering Street Life on the far turn, and closed with a rush down the center of the homestretch.
"A great race. We're very, very proud, very happy, very elated," said Zito, who trains Fast Falcon for Richard C. Pell. "The bittersweet thing is you know he could have won it."
Zito said he would love to have a rematch with Alpha, preferably in the Gold Cup.
"I think if Alpha were to show up in the Gold Cup, we would give it a whirl, just to see if we're better than him, to keep pace with him, see how good we are," Zito said. "That's the way I like to do things. I'm not going for this Derby or Indiana or that. That doesn't do no good for us. This is what we like to do, right?"