The last time Oaklawn fans saw Alternation he was closing late to get fifth in the 2011 Arkansas Derby (gr. I), a race that he seemed destined to win early in the season after two impressive allowance race victories.
Pin Oak Stud’s regally bred son of Distorted Humor, now 4, returns to Oaklawn ready to redeem himself in the $100,000 Essex Handicap Feb. 4. He was installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite and is the 118-pound high weight. A field of seven was drawn for the 1 1/16-mile dirt contest.
Alternation, trained by Donnie Von Hemel, finally lived up to his potential with a late closing victory in the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) at Belmont Park in May. That performance was followed by two fourth-place finishes in the Jim Dandy (gr. II) at Saratoga and Super Derby (gr. II) at Louisiana Downs before finishing his sophomore campaign with a runner-up effort in the Oklahoma Derby last October at Remington Park. He has been training forwardly at Oaklawn since December in preparation for this race.
“He’s a horse who likes to train and fortunately with the weather we’ve been able to keep going straight through the whole time,” Von Hemel said. “He’s a big horse and I think he still has quite a bit of upside. Hopefully we can get it going right Saturday and see where it takes him.”
Alternation’s main competition figures to be the top three finishers from Oaklawn’s opening day feature, the Fifth Season Stakes--Color Me Blue, Twice the Appeal, and It Happened Again. It Happened Again, the beaten favorite in the Fifth Season, was made the 5-2 second choice based on his troubled trip last time. He picks up leading rider Terry Thompson. The Steve Asmussen trainee is three-for-six at Oaklawn, including a win in the 2011 Razorback Handicap.
Twice the Appeal, the 2011 Sunland Derby (gr. III) winner, was making his first start in the Fifth Season since finishing 10th in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). He fell just a neck short of winning and figures to benefit from that race. Trainer Jeff Bonde has secured the services of 2009 champion apprentice jockey Christian Santiago-Reyes, who comes in from California for the mount.
Color Me Blue, who has only finished out of the money once in his last 10 starts, figures to get overlooked in the Essex despite his breakthrough win in the Fifth Season. Based on his current good form, trainer Brian Williamson has opted to keep his Illinois-bred son of Flatter in Hot Springs rather than return to his home state.