On paper, it doesn’t look as if Alpha will run into anything drastically different than he did when handily winning the Count Fleet Stakes last month. So when asked what he is looking for from the Bernardini colt in the $200,000 Withers (gr. III) Feb. 4 at Aqueduct, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin made it very simple.
“We’re looking for graded earnings from this spot,” he said. “Like every other 3-year-old that has hopes and visions of running on the first Saturday in May, that’s what we’re after. It’s a graded race, unlike last year, so it’s very important to start banking some earnings from a colt that we like a lot.”
The Withers, which was on hiatus last year, replaces the Whirlaway Stakes on the calendar and is the first of three New York graded races leading up to the Triple Crown. Previously run the week before the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) on the main track as a one-turn mile, the race is now two turns at 1 1/16 miles on the inner track.
This race drew a field of seven, with Alpha pegged as the even-money favorite. He won the Count Fleet by 2 1/2 length Jan. 7, recovering from a bad break to easily defeat his rivals. Leading rider Ramon Dominguez will keep the mount for McLaughlin, who trains the bay colt for Godolphin Racing.
McLaughlin said he was pleasantly surprised by Alpha’s Count Fleet, which came two months after his disastrous Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). Alpha was unsettled in the gate and never got involved during an 11th place finish. Gate problems have been an issue from the very beginning for Alpha, who broke his maiden by six lengths in his debut and was second to Union Rags in the Champagne (gr. I).
“He drew post seven of seven, so the horse continues to live right,” said a relieved McLaughlin, who won this race in 2007 and 2009. “We still worry about the starting gate on race day. He gets a little bit upset. We’ve been schooling him and he does great, but he seems to know the difference between the morning and the afternoon. He gets a little worked up in the afternoon, so it's nice that he doesn’t have to be in there long being in post seven.
“We’re happy to have Ramon Dominguez, who has kind, soft hands. We’ll let him do his thing and hopefully the horse gets better (in the gate).”
Darley bred Alpha, who is out of the Nijinsky II mare Munnaya.
How Do I Win, a son of Corinthian owned by Mike Repole and trained by Todd Pletcher, sat behind the pacesetter in the Count Fleet but came up empty in the lane. Repole said there will be a change of tactics in the Withers.
“Last time he sat slightly behind the pace leader and didn't seem comfortable. Hopefully he will mature. We plan on going for the lead,” Repole said.
How Do I Win, a winner in two of his six starts so far, will break from post 5 and once again be ridden by Cornelio Velasquez.
Gary Contessa trainee Speightscity broke his maiden by 11 1/2 lengths last September, but has finished off the board in three stakes tries since. He will ship over from Belmont Park, where he has had two sharp works since the Count Fleet. David Cohen will have the call once again.
New York-bred Swag Daddy, trained by Rick Dutrow Jr. and owned by Eric Fein, enters off consecutive state-restricted stakes wins at Aqueduct—both in December. This will be the 3-year-old debut for the son of Scat Daddy, who has won three of six starts. The colt was picked out of the OBS 2011 selected sale of 2-year-olds in training for $170,000.
Also in the race is the lightly-raced King Kid, who makes only his third start. Trained by Dale Romans, the Lemon Drop Kid colt was third in the Jan. 1 Gulfstream Park Derby. He broke his maiden at Churchill Downs in November.
$200,000 Withers (gr. III, Race 9, 4:05 p.m.), 3YO, 1 1/16 Miles (Inner Dirt) PP. Horse, Weight, Jockey, Trainer, Odds 1. Hakama, 118, J Pimentel, M Trombetta, 5-1
2. Speightscity, 118, D Cohen, G Contessa, 20-1
3. Swag Daddy, 120, J Alvarado, R Dutrow Jr., 10-1
4. King Kid, 116, M Luzzi D Romans, 4-1
5. How Do I Win, 116, C Velasquez, T Pletcher, 10-1
6. Tiger Walk, 118, H Karamanos, I Correas, 6-1
7. Alpha, 120, R Dominguez, K McLaughlin, Even