As many three-year-old horses continue on their own paths into the starting gates under the twin spires of Churchill Downs on May 5, handicappers and racing fans are looking for their selections and betting choice in the biggest race of the year.
This past Saturday, three-significant Kentucky Derby prep races were run from coast-to-coast, and we got a slightly better feel for some of the better three-year-old contenders in this year's class.
Here is a complex analysis of each race and horse based on my nine years experience working in the industry and handicapping horses.
The Withers Stakes (GIII)-AQUEDUCT-Ozone Park, NY
After a very successful start as a two-year old, Alpha, now a three-year-old bay colt by Bernardini out of the Nijinsky II mare Munnaya—came into this race as the clear favorite. After breaking his maiden in his first-career start going seven furlongs at Saratoga, he followed that up with a second-place finish in the Grade I-Champagne Stakes from Belmont finishing behind Union Rags.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin decided the two-year-old was good enough to take a shot at winning the Breeders Cup Juvenile from Churchill Downs in November. A jockey change to Garrett Gomez from his traditional go-to-rider Alan Garcia didn't do the trick. Alpha finished a well-beaten 11th. Union Rags finished second in that race.
Heading into this season, the sky is the limit for a horse like Alpha. After succeeding going two-turns as a two-year-old, the only question would be: Can the horse continue to improve enough to sustain a run towards the Triple Crown's first leg—the Kentucky Derby?
Kiaran McLaughlin entered Alpha in the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct on January 7, 2012. In his three-year-old debut, the horse impressed and won the race easily under yet another new jockey—Ramon Dominguez. McLaughlin decided to keep Dominguez after the impressive win. That set the stage for Saturday's race.
A relatively small field of six resulted in Alpha going off as the 1-4 odds-on betting choice. After a clean start, Alpha followed eventual pace-setter How Do I Win before being forced roughly four-wide into the first turn. Dominguez settled him down on the back stretch on the outside before gradually creeping towards the front-runner on his way to the far turn.
Once Alpha reached the far turn, he was forced to go three-wide or more for a second time, but you could just see Dominguez had a handful underneath him. He tapped him about three times and the horse kicked clear by two to three lengths—and looked very impressive in doing so. The 44-1 long shot, Speightscity wound up second. The third-betting choice Tiger Walk got up for third place.
The doubters are going to say that Alpha didn't face any proven horses in The Withers. They will be right. They can also say that Alpha has never won outside the state of New York. They will be right. Most of all, they will say in his only start over the Churchill Downs surface, he had been crushed and failed to do anything.
Those doubters should be careful because this horse looks to be improving and improving quickly. Look for Alpha in the Wood Memorial from Aqueduct on April 7. He will not go off at 1-4, and he will be facing a much better field.
NEXT UP: The Wood Memorial (GI)-AQUEDUCT on April 7, 2012