01/07/2012 6:13PM

Aqueduct: Alpha looks like Kentucky Derby contender in Count Fleet win

Barbara D. Livingston
Alpha, one of three winners on the card for jockey Ramon Dominguez, wins the Count Fleet while racing on Lasix for the first time.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Can a legitimate Kentucky Derby prospect bloom in New York during the winter?

On a spring-like afternoon that rivaled any Wood Memorial Day seen around here in years, Alpha looked like a legitimate Derby contender with a solid 2 1/2-length victory in Saturday’s $150,000 Count Fleet Stakes over Aqueduct’s inner track. Stephanoatsee, a half-brother to 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford, rallied to get second by a neck over Il Villano.

The win enabled Alpha, a son of 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini, to bounce back from an 11th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile two months ago at Churchill Downs. It also gave owner Sheikh Mohammed and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin a sweep of Saturday’s stakes in New York.  Alpha raced under Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin banner while Captivating Lass, who won the $100,000 Busanda for 3-year-old fillies one race earlier, raced under his Darley banner.

“We’ve always liked this horse quite a bit,’’ Art Magnuson, assistant trainer to McLaughlin, said of Alpha. “We were disappointed after the Breeders’ Cup and this race in New York, shorter field, gives us a chance to get back on track.’’

Alpha has had a history of bad behavior at the gate and he displayed that tendency again Saturday, rearing up under Ramon Dominguez right before the start and then bobbling once the doors opened. But he quickly gathered himself, raced three wide behind a slow pace - the fractions were 24.48 seconds for the quarter, 49.06 for the half-mile, and 1:13.91 for six furlongs - and was good enough to overtake Il Villano and How Do I Win in midstretch to go on for the victory.

Stephanoatsee rallied to get second over Il Villano, who was followed in the order of finish by How Do I Win, Speightscity, Whistleblower, and Shkspeare Shaliyah.

Alpha, who raced on Lasix for the first time, covered the mile and 70 yards in 1:42.83 and returned $3.60 to win.

“I was very pleased with his performance,’’ said Dominguez, who won three races on the card. “They were going slow, I’m three wide, but I’m tracking two sprinters, which they were slowing it down. … He just kept on grinding. I’m very happy with his response down the lane. Every time I asked him, he jumped on the bridle and gave me more. He galloped out to the point where I had to get the outrider to help me pull him up.’’

Alpha, who finished second to Union Rags in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont last October, will likely stay in New York for the Grade 3, $200,000 Withers Stakes here on Feb. 4. The Withers is run at a 1 1/16 miles. He will be a frequent visitor to the starting gate for schooling, according to Magnuson.

“Gate needs work,’’ Magnuson said. “They do a great job here. They’ll see him often.’’

While McLaughlin swept both stakes, trainer Graham Motion finished second in both races with Sweet Seventeen in the Busanda and Stephanoatsee in the Count Fleet. Stephanoatsee did come with a late run and gave an improved performance over his seventh-place finish in the Remsen.

 “After the last race I really didn’t know what to make of it,’’ Motion said. “Today, I thought he ran a legitimate race with a legitimate horse. Maybe I wish Kiaran would have stayed in Florida this week.’’