Godolphin Stables' Alpha sprung a wire-to-wire upset in the $735,000 Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course Aug. 31 (VIDEO), winning for the first time since he took the 2012 Travers Stakes (gr. I) last August in a dead heat with Golden Ticket.
The longest shot in a five-horse field at 7-1, Alpha broke like a shot from the outside post under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez. He bounded to the lead, leaving West Coast speedster Paynter, the 3-2 choice, in his wake along with multiple grade I winner Flat Out.
Thrown out of his game on the sloppy track, Paynter was hustled along by jockey Rafael Bejarano but faded after pushing to second, two lengths behind a :24.46 quarter and a half in :48.20, then tracking along as three-quarters went in 1:11.57. Bejarano said his runner never handled the track.
"He broke a little slow, but I found my position right away," the rider said. "We had a good trip, but I was out of horse by the half-mile. I think he didn't feel comfortable on the surface. He never felt comfortable."
Alpha, who rated kindly in the four path while cutting the pace, responded eagerly when let out a notch departing the backstretch. Flat Out swung out for the drive after racing third and looked ready to reel in the leader, but Alpha fought back gamely on the inside.
"We waited until the quarter-pole when the other horse came to me," Velazquez said. "Once that other horse didn't pass me at the three-sixteenths pole, I knew my horse was going to put up a good fight. Obviously, he did and kicked ahead. My horse kept fighting and I made sure to keep him busy. He really didn't slow down. When Flat Out came close to me again, my horse put in another gear going to the wire."
Flat Out was perhaps denied victory due to taking an erratic course under the steady left-handed urging of jockey Junior Alvarado. The 7-year-old Suburban Handicap (gr. II) winner drifted out steadily in late stretch and only corrected his course after the rider switched his stick over to the other side, then drifted in to just miss as Alpha held sway by a head on the line.
"He ran his race and he put everything he had and we just didn't get lucky at the wire," Alvarado said. "Alpha was strong and ran a great race, too. The only thing, I was expecting Paynter to go with him, but Alpha made the lead easy and I had to start going after him a little bit at the three-eighths pole, and that was a long move for him."
Final time for the 1 1/8-mile contest was 1:49.28 by the 4-year-old son of Bernardini , who is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin. Alpha came off a sixth in the Aug. 3 Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I), and was fourth before that in the July 6 Suburban at Belmont Park.
"I think the start was a big, big difference," said McLaughlin, who added blinkers to Alpha's equipment after the sluggish effort in the Whitney. "Maybe he wasn't as fit as I thought he was the last two races. We had him dead-ready and fit today. Johnny did a great job breaking well because he's had his gate issues.
"The stretch run was more nerve-wracking than the Travers, because we were there, trying to hold him off. But it was great. When Flat Out came to us, Johnny said he kind of looked at the tire tracks (on the surface) late, but we're here in the winner's circle, so it was a great win, one of our biggest, probably."
Alpha has now won four of five outings at Saratoga, his only loss there coming in the Whitney. He broke his maiden at first asking over the upstate New York oval by six lengths on closing day in 2011, and won the Jim Dandy (gr. II) en route to his historic Travers score. The Jim Dandy was also a wire-to-wire rumble in the mud.
"I told Johnny if he breaks well and he can throw mud on the rest of them, please do," McLaughlin said. "He agreed with me. He's a great rider and you hope things go like planned, and they did. So it's just fabulous. I wish Saratoga was open a little longer for him because he loves it here. He's a nice horse, a really neat horse to be around. I'm just happy for the whole team."
Alpha was bred in Kentucky by Darley out of the Nijinsky II mare Munnaya. He improved his record to six wins and two seconds from 16 starts, with earnings of $1,772,500. He also counts the 2012 Count Fleet Stakes and Withers Stakes (gr. III) among his scores.
Alpha paid $17.40, $6.30, and $3.40, while Flat Out returned $3.50 and $2.20 and Successful Dan brought $2.80 when finishing 6 3/4 lengths back in third. Ron the Greek and Paynter completed the order of finish; Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man scratched.