01/09/2012 2:52PM

Aqueduct: Kentucky Derby hopeful Alpha is still learning gate behavior

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Barbara D. Livingston
Alpha, with Ramon Dominguez riding, wins the Count Fleet.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – As solid a race as Alpha ran winning Saturday’s $150,000 Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct, if he is going to become a legitimate contender for the Kentucky Derby, he is going to have to behave better in the starting gate.

That’s why Alpha will undergo stringent gate-schooling sessions between now and his likely expected next start in the Grade 3, $200,000 Withers Stakes here on Feb. 4.

Alpha reared up just before the starting gate opened for the Count Fleet, and then bobbled once the doors did open. Still, thanks in part to a slow early pace, Alpha recovered enough to be a tracking third before taking over at the eighth pole and drawing clear late. Alpha, under Ramon Dominguez, won the Count Fleet by 2 1/2 lengths, running a mile and 70 yards in 1:42.83. He earned an 85 Beyer Speed Figure.

The issues at the gate were a topic of conversation Sunday between Art Manguson, assistant to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, and New York Racing Association starter Roy Williamson, who had some ideas moving forward.

“He’d like to see Alpha school with horses around him,” Magnuson said. “Sometimes you school them by themselves and they get better, but that’s not a race scenario. So, we’re going to bring him back with more horses like Roy said more often.”

Alpha was a handful in the starting gate before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to the point where jockey Garrett Gomez had to dismount Alpha while in the gate.

McLaughlin said he schooled Alpha “mainly by himself” in the gate several times at Palm Meadows in Florida between the Breeders’ Cup and the Count Fleet. And as much schooling as Alpha will do between now and the Withers, McLaughlin said he will still be a little apprehensive on race day, noting that some horses do know the difference between the morning and afternoon.

“He stands in there quiet in the morning, and on race day it’s a different situation,” McLaughlin said.

Magnuson said that a schooling schedule will be determined will be made once Alpha resumes his normal training routine, which won’t be until the end of the week.

“Once we get him settled in back galloping and he’s in a good routine, we’ll go a few days in a row, probably depending on what Roy wants,” Magnuson said. “If Roy wants to see him twice or six times – whatever he wants.”

McLaughlin said that he hasn’t determined whether Alpha would run in the Withers and the $400,000 Gotham on March 3 leading up to the $1 million Wood Memorial on April 7 or just the Withers and skip the Gotham.

Meanwhile, trainer Graham Motion said he would likely ship Count Fleet runner-up Stephanoatsee back to New York for the Withers on Feb. 4. Last year, Motion won the Whirlaway with Toby’s Corner on the first Saturday in February. The Withers has replaced the Whirlaway on the calendar. Toby’s Corner then ran third in the Gotham before winning the Wood Memorial with blinkers on for the first time.

Motion said he would likely put a small set of blinkers on Stephanoatsee, who Motion believes was “goofing off” for parts of the race before closing well to get second by a neck over Il Villano.

Good off to decent start in NY debut

Lured by the hefty purse structure, trainer John Good brought a 10-horse string to New York for the winter and has enjoyed some early success with 2 wins and 2 seconds from his first 7 starters. Five horses have accounted for those seven starts and three of the five have been claimed from Good.

Good has claimed two horses himself and currently has eight _ one horse he had to turn out – in his care in Belmont Park’s Barn 50.

Good, 33, worked eight years for trainer Bob Baffert before going out on his own in 2005. Usually, he runs on the Chicago-Kentucky-New Orleans circuit, but wanted to give New York a try this winter.

“We’re here dipping our toes in the water a little bit,” Good said. “I had horses at Saratoga two summers ago, they ran well, but obviously it’s tough up there. Usually, I go to the Fair Grounds, but I’ve got some friends/clients here in the city, and they were keen to run for the money. It makes all the sense in the world.”

While most of Good’s horses have run well, one who hasn’t is First Gold, a 5-year-old gelding he took for $10,000 in November at Churchill who has been beaten a combined 39 1/2 lengths in two starts in New York. He is entered back in a $10,000 claimer on Wednesday.

“He’s been real disappointing,” Good said Monday. “I was going to send him to somebody in Ohio after that bad performance, but I’m going to give him one more shot because he trained so good. It’s a longshot, but maybe we’ll ride him a little differently and see if we can pick up his attitude up.”