Updated on 02/05/2012 3:37AM

Aqueduct: Withers win would boost Alpha's status for Kentucky Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Alpha, winner of the Count Fleet last month, figures to be the odds-on favorite in Saturday's Withers.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Six years ago, Bernardini used the Grade 3 Withers Stakes as a springboard to success in the Preakness. Saturday, one of Bernardini’s sons hopes to use the same race as a way to get into the Kentucky Derby.

If Alpha, a son of the white-hot sire Bernardini, can duplicate his performance from last month’s Count Fleet Stakes in Saturday’s $200,000 Withers at Aqueduct, he will earn $120,000 in graded stakes earnings. That, combined with the $60,000 Alpha earned for finishing second in the Grade 1 Champagne last October would move him close to a slot in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the May 5 Derby with still three months to go before the race.

The Withers was typically a one-turn mile race run the last weekend of April over Aqueduct’s main track. The New York Racing Association put it on hiatus in 2011, but brought it back this year and, because it retained its graded status, scheduled it in on the first weekend of February in place of the $100,000 ungraded Whirlaway.

The Withers, run around two turns at 1 1/16 miles, now fits in nicely with New York’s Triple Crown prep program, which continues with the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham next month and the $1 million Wood Memorial on April 7.

Saturday, the Withers is part of a 10-race program that includes the Grade 3, $150,000 Toboggan for older male sprinters and the $100,000 Correction for older female sprinters.

Alpha, owned by Godolphin Racing, overcame some difficulty in the gate and a bit of a wide trip under jockey Ramon Dominguez to take the Count Fleet by 2 3/4 lengths over Stephanoatsee. Big on talent, small in stature, Alpha has had only one workout in the four weeks between races, but his connections believe they have done enough to have him fit.

“Weight has never been an issue but when you look at him you can’t help but think that you wouldn’t want to drill him too hard,” said Art Magnuson, the New York-based assistant to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “He’s a very sound horse, though.

“We’re absolutely ready to go,” Magnuson added. “He was three wide on two turns the other day, ran very, very well. I think we’re absolutely moving forward.”

Because of his idiosyncrasies at the gate, Alpha has had two schooling sessions and was scheduled to visit again on Friday, according to Magnuson. The outside draw should help Alpha, Magnuson added.

“I’m glad we’re not 11 of 11, but 7 of 7 is good,” Magnuson said. “It’s a good number for the gate and Ramon can see the whole field and watch it unfold. His instructions will be ‘good luck.’ It’s his horse for a few minutes, whatever he wants to do.”

There appears to be more speed in the Withers than there was in the Count Fleet. Since being stretched out in distance and tried around two turns, Hakama is 2 for 2, winning both in front-running fashion. He breaks from the rail on Saturday under Julian Pimentel.

How Do I Win finished fourth in the Count Fleet. Trainer Todd Pletcher said that jockey Cornelio Velasquez took too much of a hold of him last time. That won’t be the case on Saturday.

“He’s more of a free-running kind of a horse so, we’ll take another shot with him,” Pletcher said.

Swag Daddy won the Restrainor Stakes on the front end, but came from last to win the Damon Runyon. Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. said he will leave the trip Saturday up to jockey Junior Alvarado.

“He said he felt much better when he has targets,” Dutrow said.

Dutrow said that his New York assistants indicate to him Swag Daddy is training “as good as he ever trained. Maybe better.”

King Kid finished third to Reveron in the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day in his second start.

“I thought it was good for the second start of his life,” trainer Dale Romans said.

Tiger Walk, who won his dirt debut last December, and Speightscity, fifth in the Count Fleet, complete the field.


Withers S. (G3), Post Time: 4:05 ET Saturday

Purse: $200,000; 1 1/16 miles





ML Odds



M. Trombetta

J. Pimentel




G. Contessa

D. Cohen



Swag Daddy

R. Dutrow, Jr.

J. Alvarado



King Kid

D. Romans

M. Luzzi



How Do I Win

T. Pletcher

C. Velasquez



Tiger Walk

I. Correas

H. Karamanos




K. McLaughlin

R. Dominguez