Alternation outbroke the rest of the older male division this year when capturing his first four starts. After falling behind the pack over the summer, the Pin Oak homebred will try and re-rally to catch up with the rest of the divisional heavyweights beginning with Saturday's Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup. The 1 1/4-mile test serves as Alternation's final tune-up for the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Classic.
With victories that were more workmanlike than brilliant, and without a top-level score to his name, Alternation has been somewhat forgotten as the racing season has progressed. The son of Distorted Humor colt began the term with a sweep of Oaklawn's major races for older horses -- the Essex Handicap, Grade 3 Razorback Handicap and Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap. Among the vanquished in the latter were Ron the Greek and Hymn Book, who respectively landed the major Grade 1 handicaps in California and Florida last winter.
A narrow photo-finish winner of the Grade 3 Pimlico Special in his next start, Alternation then moved on to the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. A non-threatening fifth-place effort behind the likes of Ron the Greek and Wise Dan stopped Alternation's ascension of the older male ranks, and the Donnie Von Hemel trainee subsequently laid low at Remington Park in Oklahoma City over the summer.
Alternation returned to action in the August 11 Governor's Cup at Remington over nine furlongs. Again showing a tendency to gut out a win, Alternation prevailed in a stretch-long duel over multiple Grade 2 veteran Prayer for Relief by a nose.
One rival who might vie with the blinkered Alternation for early supremacy is Nates Mineshaft, who coasted to facile wins in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap, Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap and Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap earlier this season. The Austin Smith trainee has been idle since the June 16 Stephen Foster, where he led most of the way before yielding by three-quarters of a length.
A couple of Gold Cup participants might be using this as a steppingstone for the Grade 2 Breeders' Cup Marathon. Eldaafer, a former Marathon winner, has shown more signs of life this season after a modest 2011 campaign. The Grade 2 veteran enters the Gold Cup off a minor stakes score at Delaware Park and previously placed in the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap over 1 1/2 miles.
Cease, who was well supported in last year's Gold Cup when he ran a close third in his stakes debut, went on to finish fifth in the Marathon at Churchill Downs. Hero of the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston in January, he enters off a solid third in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga.
Rounding out the Gold Cup field are multiple Grade 3 winner Mister Marti Gras, who's been multiple graded stakes-placed this year; Pool Play, who has dropped three races after returning from a long layoff following his 2011 Stephen Foster upset; and Grade 2 Super Derby winner Fly Lexis Fly, who seeks to join an elite cast of three-year-old Hawthorne Gold Cup winners that includes Kelso, Round Table, Dr. Fager, Nodouble and Challedon.
The Gold Cup undercard features two $100,000 grass stakes. The Robert F. Carey Memorial Handicap at 1 1/8 miles features Willcox Inn, hero of the Grade 2 American Derby and Grade 3 Hawthorne Derby in 2011. The Indian Maid, for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles, is headlined by multiple Grade 3 queen Romacaca.