02/02/2012 4:23PM

Oaklawn: Alternation the heavy hitter in Essex

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Barbara D. Livingston
Alternation ended his 2011 campaign running second in the Oklahoma Derby.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Alternation established himself as a quality 3-year-old last year when he won the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont Park. But there have long been reasons to believe he would be a better horse at 4, and the time has come to put that theory to the test.

Alternation will take on older horses Saturday at Oaklawn Park in the $100,000 Essex, a 1 1/16-mile handicap that serves as a stepping-stone to the Grade 2, $350,000 Oaklawn. He is the 118-pound starting highweight against six others including the first three finishers from the opening-day $75,000 Fifth Season: Color Me Blue, Twice the Appeal, and It Happened Again.

Alternation has long been managed with the idea that he would be a later-developing individual.

“He’s a big colt,” said Donnie Von Hemel, who trains Alternation for Pin Oak Stable. “He just was one of those that was not as precocious, and we didn’t start him early in his 2-year-old year.

“We are looking forward to running him again. I think he’ll be competitive in this kind of race.”

Alternation made two starts at 2, and won his maiden when stretched out to two turns. He then went 3 for 7 last year, closing out his season Oct. 16 with a runner-up finish in the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby.

“It was one of those races where everybody had some traffic trouble,” Von Hemel said. “He only got beat a head.”

The Oklahoma Derby has since produced four horses who won in their next starts, including winner Redeemed, who came back to take the Grade 3 Discovery at Aqueduct, and Populist Politics, who accounted for the $60,000 Mr Sulu at Fair Grounds.

Von Hemel said he has been pleased with how Alternation has progressed for his first start back.

“He’s a horse that can handle some training, so I feel like we got enough miles in him to be ready,” said the trainer, who has given the mount to Luis Quinonez.

Twice the Appeal made his Oaklawn debut in the Fifth Season and ran a bang-up race in his first start since splitting the field in the Kentucky Derby. He took the lead in the stretch, then was edged late by a rail-surging Color Me Blue.

“He ran well, galloped out in front of the winner,” said Jeff Bonde, who trains Twice the Appeal. “I don’t know if he saw that other horse.

“He ran well. That’s the most important thing. And he had no problem with the racetrack.”

Christian Santiago-Reyes has the mount Saturday.