07/28/2011 11:53AM

Saratoga: Patient approach has Alternation set for Jim Dandy

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Donnie Von Hemel opted to hold Peter Pan winner Alternation for Saturday’s Jim Dandy Stakes rather than run him back in the Belmont Stakes in June.

Having practiced patience with horses her whole life, 85-year-old Josephine Abercrombie wasn’t about to start changing her philosophy now.

Even after Alternation rallied to win the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on May 14, she and her trainer Donnie Von Hemel decided not to run back four weeks later in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.

“Too soon,” Abercrombie said. “We haven’t gone that distance yet. We’d like to take it easy and give him an opportunity to be at his very best. Not push him, in other words.”

“It was a decision that we took very seriously,” Von Hemel said. “We came down on the side of, ‘Let’s wait and try to run in those races at Saratoga and through the fall,’ as opposed to pushing more at that time in June. [On Saturday], we’ll find out if we did the right thing or not.”

Saturday is the Grade 2, $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes, in which Alternation will begin the second half of his 3-year-old season against the likes of Dwyer Stakes winner Dominus, Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed, and Belmont Stakes runner-up Stay Thirsty. A solid effort would earn Alternation a spot in the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 27.

Abercrombie, who races under her farm’s name, Pin Oak Stud, has never run a horse in the Travers. She said she has come to Saratoga for decades and would love to participate in the track’s marquee event. Making it more special would be to run in it with a horse she bred and whose family includes stakes winners Alternate (the dam of Alternation) and her half-brother Peaks and Valleys, among the most accomplished horses Abercrombie has campaigned.

In 1995, as a 3-year-old, Peaks and Valleys won the Molson Million, Meadowlands Cup, Illinois Derby, and was named Canada’s champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year. He also won the Derby Trial but, like Alternation, was kept out of the Triple Crown races.

Abercrombie is the only child of James Smithers Abercrombie, a successful Texas oilman who in 1952 opened a farm in Kentucky that dealt in cattle, tobacco, asparagus, and horses. Her current 750-acre farm in Versailles, Ky., was bought in 1987 and is where she boards four stallions and 35 to 40 broodmares.

Abercrombie uses multiple trainers including Von Hemel, Graham Motion, and Malcolm Pierce. Abercrombie said she has used Von Hemel for more than 20 years and thinks he is the consummate horseman.

“He has ridden all his life, his father is a horseman, he grew up around horses, he knows them, he understands them,” Abercrombie said. “His barn is beautifully run. His horses look great. You don’t see skinny, pitiful things. They’re well fed, well taken care of. Donnie was always in the top part of our trainers. He’s just really good.”

Von Hemel, who is based primarily in the Midwest, has trained several stakes-caliber horses for Abercrombie, including Brownie Points, who won eight stakes and earned $951,230. Her biggest accomplishment, however, may be running second in the 2008 Apple Blossom behind the yet-to-be-heralded Zenyatta and ahead of defending champion older female Ginger Punch.

Von Hemel also trained 10-time stakes winner Bedanken and Grade 1 winner See How She Runs for Abercrombie. Among the five horses Von Hemel brought to Saratoga this summer is Try to Catch Her, the third foal from See How She Runs by another top Pin Oak runner and stallion, Broken Vow.

Von Hemel expressed a desire to move his summer operations to the East Coast this year, according to Clifford Barry, the farm manager for Abercrombie since 1989. That would mean getting better horses to train. Alternation was among the best of Pin Oak’s 2-year-old crop in 2010.

Alternation, who is by Distorted Humor, was shipped to Von Hemel at Arlington in May of his 2-year-old season. According to Barry, Von Hemel wasn’t thrilled with the way Alternation traveled over Arlington’s synthetic surface, nor did he want to run the horse too short for his debut. Eventually, Alternation made his debut in a six-furlong race at Remington Park in November, finishing a late-running third.

He won a mile and 70-yard maiden race at Remington by seven in December and then went to Oaklawn Park, where he knocked out two allowance races.

Alternation’s fortunes turned in February when he uncharacteristically acted up in the gate in the Rebel Stakes and had to be scratched. He wasn’t seriously injured, but patience was again practiced, and he did not race for almost two months.

Hoping to avoid another disastrous gate episode, Von Hemel did extensive schooling with Alternation in the weeks leading up to the Arkansas Derby. He had a member of the starting gate crew “tail” the horse, or hold the tail while the horse was in the gate and let go when the stall doors opened. Still, Alternation broke slowly and trailed the field of 13 before rallying seven wide in the stretch to finish fifth.

“He came on and was closing at the end, but it wasn’t anything that inspired us to go on to any of the Triple Crown races or anything,” Von Hemel said.

Thus, the Peter Pan became the target. In that race, Alternation broke much better and rallied from midpack under Ramon Dominguez to get up by a head over Adios Charlie, the Grade 2 Jerome winner.

“It was a thrill to come back and win a race like that,” Von Hemel said. “He was, I thought, very professional. Ramon asked him to move in the middle of the turn, and then he had to wait a little while and then come again. I thought he showed a little moxie in that race.”

Shipped back to Arlington, Alternation put in a series of steady works before shipping to Saratoga on July 15.

“He’s mentally more mature,” Von Hemel said. “He’s held his flesh real well through the summer. He’s very confident in himself, it seems, when he’s out on the track.”

Von Hemel and Abercrombie said they are confident the decision to skip the Belmont Stakes was the right one. If they leave Saratoga with a victory in either the Jim Dandy or Travers, they will have been proved right. If they leave with a win in both, perhaps Alternation can get himself in the discussion for the 3-year-old championship.

“Quite frankly,” Von Hemel said, “the way the 3-year-olds have been beating each other this year, we hope we can be in the mix.”