04/12/2012 1:05PM

Oaklawn: Patience with Oaklawn Handicap threat Alternation has paid off

Coady Photography/Oaklawn Park
Alternation has been far more effective since learning to race closer to the early pace.

Two North American Grade 1 dirt races for older horses have been contested in 2012. Hymn Book won the Donn Handicap on Feb. 11 at Gulfstream Park, Ron the Greek captured the March 3 Santa Anita Handicap. Those two horses meet Saturday in Arkansas, but waiting for them in the Grade 2, $400,000 Oaklawn Handicap is a potentially formidable local opponent, Alternation.

Alternation has started his season with two wins, the best two-race string of his career, and the patient plan his connections hatched last year, to hold something back for a 2012 campaign, appears to be successfully playing out.

[MORE: Get PPs and handicapping analysis on Saturday's Oaklawn card]

Alternation won the Grade 2 Peter Pan on May 14 at Belmont Park, but trainer Donnie Von Hemel and owner-breeder Pin Oak Stable decided against jumping into the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Later in the summer, they passed up the Travers Stakes after Alternation finished an even fourth in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

“We always felt he would be a better 4-year-old,” Von Hemel said Thursday. “He was a big colt, and just wasn’t as precocious as horses you think of as being 2- or 3-year-old prospects. It was a matter of just not wanting to push the horse a couple times last year because sometimes if you push too hard with a 3-year-old, you won’t have a 4-year-old season.”

Alternation, by Distorted Humor, raced in blinkers his last three starts, and since that equipment change he has stuck closer to the early lead than was the case in most of his 3-year-old races. After easily winning the Feb. 4 Essex Handicap with a stalking trip, Alternation made the lead over favored Tapizar in the March 10 Razorback, going on to a 1 1/2-length victory. Alternation’s developing pace presence could serve him well Saturday, since among his seven rivals, only Yawanna Twist looks much like a front-runner.

Moderate fractions could work against Hymn Book and Ron the Greek, both of whom rallied late and wide in their recent Grade 1 wins. Ron the Greek, in particular, reaped the benefits of a hot, contested pace in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap; 14 lengths behind at the second call, Ron the Greek rolled to a 3 1/2-length score in a career-best performance.

“I can’t control the pace, and neither can he,” trainer Bill Mott said. “If you look back at his form, it shows he can be closer if they’re going slower.”

Late last fall at Aqueduct, Ron the Greek won a pair of five-figure New York stakes racing on or just off slow fractions. His finishing punch, however, looked much stronger at Santa Anita.

Hymn Book also turned in a career-peak performance when he won the Donn by a nose over Mission Impazible, Hymn Book’s first graded stakes win of any sort. The 6-year-old Hymn Book has won half his 14 starts, and spent much of his career on turf before showing his connections superior dirt form last season. He finished second to Flat Out in the Suburban Handicap and second behind To Honor and Serve in the Cigar Mile last fall before breaking through in the Donn.

“After the Donn, this is the race I had in mind,” said trainer Shug McGaughey. “He had a real good work last Saturday at Belmont before we shipped him on Sunday.”

Hymn Book and Ron the Greek carry 118 pounds, one more than Alternation.

Drawn on the rail is Nehro, who was scratched from the April 1 New Orleans Handicap the day before the race after reportedly tying up following a training session. Nehro, who missed winning the 2011 Arkansas Derby by a neck, showed up on the Oaklawn work tab on April 4, and breezed again April 10. He makes the second start of his 4-year-old season after outclassing allowance horses Feb. 25 at Fair Grounds.

The field also includes the 2011 Oaklawn Handicap winner Win Willy, who didn’t race after that victory until he finished sixth last month in the Razorback. Yawanna Twist was third last out in the Grade 2 General George, a seven-furlong race, and has never won at the Oaklawn Handicap’s 1 1/8-mile mile distance.