01/19/2012 4:31PM

Aqueduct: Alpha aces gate-schooling test

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Barbara D. Livingston
Alpha (center) bobbles at the start before going on to win the Count Fleet at Aqueduct.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – School was in session Thursday morning for New York’s top Kentucky Derby prospect and for one day at least Alpha was a model student.

Alpha put himself on the Kentucky Derby trail by winning the $150,000 Count Fleet Stakes here Jan. 7. The 3-year-old son of 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini won, despite displaying some bad habits in the gate that included nibbling at the assistant starter, rearing up right before the doors opened, and bobbling when they did open.

In hopes of having a better-behaved colt for the Grade 3, $200,000 Withers Stakes here Feb. 4, the connections of Alpha planned several gate-schooling sessions for their colt.

The first one occurred on a cold but sunny Thursday morning at the Belmont Park training track.

In a chute adjacent to the training track, there is an eight-stall schooling gate. There are two stalls – one which has no doors – that are wider than a normal starting-gate stall and six regular, padded stalls.

After galloping a mile on the training track, Alpha and three of his stablemates visited the starting gate shortly before 9 a.m. Roy Williamson, the NYRA starter, and four of his assistants who handle the horses in the afternoon take part in the morning schooling sessions.

With two horses put in the stalls inside of him, Alpha, under exercise rider Ricardo Bonce, went in the third stall without incident. One horse was put to Alpha’s outside.

Two stalls to Alpha’s inside, stablemate Call First reared up and unseated his rider, Renzo Morales. Alpha didn’t flinch.

Call First was backed out and put back in the gate, and Morales climbed aboard. After that, all four horses stood well for about two minutes before being backed out and sent on their way.

That Call First acted up in the gate – something he had not done before – and Alpha didn’t get upset added a raceday-like element to the schooling session.

“You like to see a little action in there to make sure we’re okay, and it worked out for sure,” said Art Magnuson, assistant trainer to Alpha’s trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin.

Williamson said he prefers to school horses in groups rather than by themselves because “they tend to settle better together. I like standing horses in groups.”

Magnuson was prepared to take Alpha to the gate as often as Williamson requested leading to the Withers. But since Thursday’s session went so well, Alpha is likely to go back just twice more between now and the race.

“If Roy would have said he was antsy, bring him back more often, we would have,” Magnuson said. “Roy doesn’t seem too concerned. We’ll probably be here two more times just because. We’re no longer worried, we just need practice.”

Alpha had six days off following the Count Fleet before returning to the track Jan. 14.

Magnuson said it had not yet been decided if Alpha would work once or twice before the Withers. Weather and track condition could play a role in that decision.

“We’re not too concerned that he needs it,” Magnuson said. “It’s not all about the Withers. It’s about Withers, Gotham, and Wood.”

Swag Daddy could join Withers field

Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr., the leading trainer by wins at the inner track meet, is back in New York for a few days, checking in on his highly successful stable.

Dutrow, who wanted to be up close and personal to see I Want Revenge run in Saturday’s Evening Attire, is attempting to make plans for some of his other stakes horses.

Swag Daddy, who won a pair of two-turn stakes restricted to New York-bred 2-year-olds in December over the inner track, could join the Withers field, Dutrow said.

“That’s a possibility,” said Dutrow, who is 19 for 52 at the inner track including six stakes victories. “We’ll see who’s going to be in there. If not, there’s a New York-bred stakes a week after that.”

Dutrow said he has no idea what to do next with King and Crusader who won Monday’s Jimmy Winkfield going six furlongs three days after winning a two-turn, one-mile allowance race. On Dec. 17, King and Crusader won a stakes race at Laurel, though he was disqualified from that win for receiving Lasix too close to post time. That ruling is under appeal.

“I might send him two miles the next time, I have no idea,” Dutrow said. “He was on a van for seven hours, got off the van, and won. Then he wins going two turns on the inner track, and three days later he wins sprinting on the inner.”

Dutrow said he told owner James Riccio “the next time he runs, even if it’s at Aqueduct, I’m going to put him on a van and take him around Manhattan and bring back to the track.”

Dutrow has Ladies Handicap winner C C’s Pal nominated to the Affectionately here Jan. 28, but the mare has a minor foot issue that may force her to skip that race. Regardless, Dutrow wants to get C C’s Pal to the Barbara Fritchie at Laurel on Feb. 18.

Dutrow also is hoping to run Yawanna Twist and/or This Ones for Phil in the General George at Laurel on Feb. 20. Both horses are coming off recent allowance victories here.