02/04/2012 6:39PM

Aqueduct: Alpha takes another step forward with Withers win

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Alpha passed another test - okay call it a quiz if you like - on the road to the Kentucky Derby with a good-looking 3 1/4-length victory in Saturday’s Grade 3, $200,000 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct.

The win came one month after Alpha won the $100,000 Count Fleet Stakes here and confirmed his status as the top 3-year-old Derby prospect stabled in the Northeast. While the field Alpha defeated was not very strong, the performance was viewed as a step forward from the Count Fleet by both trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and jockey Ramon Dominguez.

“I think he improved some because of how wide he was in both trips and he was better in the gate,” McLaughlin said.  “So he gets a better grade for this race. If it was a ‘B’ last time he gets an ‘A’ today. He definitely did things better.”

Last time, Alpha acted up in the starting gate and stumbled once the doors opened. In between races, Alpha made three trips to the starting gate for schooling and the lessons paid off.

Alpha was fine in the gate and broke alertly from his outside post in the seven-horse field. He found himself four-wide into the first turn as How Do I Win set off for the lead under Cornelio Velasquez and set fractions of 23.71 seconds and 48.04 for the half-mile.

Dominguez put Alpha three wide and right behind Hakama down the backside. Alpha was so relaxed that Dominguez wasn’t sure if everything was okay with the horse.

“He switched off to the point that I really had no idea whether I had any horse or not,” Dominguez said. “Past the half-mile [pole] when I had to put a little pressure to start making my run he jumped on the bridle and was pretty handy from there.”

Dominguez took Alpha outside around the far turn and he cruised to the lead in upper stretch, opening up a four-length lead by mid-stretch and cruising home under hand urging. Alpha, a son of Bernardini, covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.23 and returned $2.70 as the 1-4 favorite.

Speightscity, the longest shot on the board at 44-1, finished second by 1 3/4 lengths over Tiger Walk. How Do I Win, King Kid, and Hakama completed the order of finish. Swag Daddy was scratched due to a foot problem, according to trainer Richard Dutrow Jr.

“I thought he moved forward from his last race although that race was already good to begin with,” Dominguez said. “I was very happy with his race today. I thought he really improved his last eighth, doing it on his own. He galloped out good, just the way you want to see it.”

Alpha earned $120,000 in graded stakes earnings from the victory and now has $180,000 in career graded earnings.

McLaughlin, who trains Alpha for Godolphin Racing, said he would consult with stable manager Simon Crisford before deciding whether Alpha stays in New York for the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham on March 3 or goes out of town for his next start.