When Godolphin Racing’s Alpha came to Churchill Downs last fall for the Breeders’ Cup, he misbehaved in the gate and wound up finishing 11th in the Grey Goose Juvenile (gr. I), beaten 19 1/2 lengths by Hansen. With Alpha returning to the scene of the crime for the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), trainer Kiaran McLauglin decided he needed a little schooling.
Sheikh Mohammed’s son of Bernardini got that May 2, going out to the track after the renovation break and spending some time with the gate crew.
“He did great,” McLaughlin said outside Barn 42 as Alpha received his morning bath. “’We decided to school in the gate because last year at the Breeders’ Cup that was the only time he was really bad in the gate. We’ve been schooling him a lot, and we need to show the gate crew here he’s doing better. I think the gate issues are behind us. It (the Breeders’ Cup) was just a bad day.”
Alpha ran second behind Union Rags in the Champagne Stakes (gr. II) before flopping in the Breeders’ Cup. This year, Alpha made short work of New York-based rivals in the Jan. 7 Count Fleet Stakes at a mile and 70 yards and in the Feb. 4 Withers Stakes (gr. III) at 1 1/16 miles. In his third start of his 3-year-old campaign Alpha was a rallying second, beaten a neck by the unbeaten Gemologist in the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I).
Alpha came out of the Wood with a few cuts on his left foreleg that became infected. That altered his plans on shipping to Kentucky.
“We were coming here to work twice, we thought,” McLaughlin said. “When he got the infection I didn’t want to ship him so quick, so he stayed in New York. He only had one published work, but he had a two-minute lick mile the Sunday before that and really looked great. I feel like we’re right on course for where we want to be.”
Alpha is light in frame, and does not have the appearance of his sire, Bernardini, who stands at Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley near Lexington.
“He doesn’t carry a lot of extra weight,” McLaughlin said. “We’re always trying to put a little weight on him. He’s a really kind horse; a neat horse to be around.”
Alpha is out of the Nijinsky II mare Munnaya, who was bred by Sheikh Mohammed. He purchased Munnaya’s dam, Hiaam, for $1.5 million at the 1985 Fasig-Tipton New York Saratoga yearling sale. Hiaam won sprint stakes in England. The Alydar mare is out of E.P. Taylor’s Kamar, Canada’s champion 3-year-old filly of 1979 and the 1990 Kentucky Broodmare of the Year. She is also the dam of Canadian champion Key to the Moon, three-time grade I winner Gorgeous, and 1990 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner Seaside Attraction.
McLauglin, based in New York with 90 horses under his care, is a Lexington product and has sent out a few from Churchill’s Barn 42 before. He came agonizingly close to winning the Derby with his first runner, Closing Argument, in 2005. After grabbing the lead in the stretch, the 71-1 Closing Argument was run down and beaten a half-length by fellow longshot Giacomo. The following year McLaughlin sent out a pair in Jazil (deadheated for fourth) and Flashy Bull (14th). Jazil would go on to win the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
“It would be priceless to be able to win this race for Sheikh Mohammed,” McLaughin said. “It would mean so much to everybody that is involved with him, and us. I’ve wanted to win it for 40 years, since I was 10-year-old, but it would be extra special to a person who really deserves to win it in Sheikh Mohammed. He’s touched so many lives in our industry, so many people work for him. A lot of people relate it to money, but I relate it to passion. He is passionate about the horse."
And passionate about winning the Derby. Aren’t we all?