04/03/2012 4:26PM

Wood Memorial: Alpha follows new path to Kentucky Derby for Godolphin

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Tom Keyser
Alpha is Godolphin's best hope for this year's Kentucky Derby. The colt will have his final prep in Saturday's Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s previous attempts to win the Kentucky Derby came with the caveat the horse come from his homeland of the United Arab Emirates.

So, while a horse may have campaigned with success in North America as a 2-year-old, that horse would, after doing a period of quarantine, ship to Dubai for the winter where he would run in one, possibly two preps, then return to the United States for the first Saturday in May.

But while Dubai’s ruling leader still covets America’s most prestigious prize, he is less stringent on how to achieve the goal.

From 1999-2002, Godolphin ran a total of five horses in four runnings of the Kentucky Derby. The results were not good: Worldly Manner (seventh in 1999), China Visit (sixth in 2000), Curule (seventh in 2000); Express Tour (eighth in 2001), and Essence of Dubai (ninth in 2002). In 2009, Godolphin runners Regal Ransom and Desert Party finished eighth and 14th, respectively, in the Derby. Perhaps Godolphin’s best 3-year-old prospect in that span was Street Cry, who missed the 2008 Kentucky Derby with an injured ankle suffered two weeks before the race.

[WOOD MEMORIAL: News updates, contender replays, watch the race live]

The winter of 2011-12 saw a change in philosophy by Sheikh Mohammed, who also races under the Darley banner. Instead of shipping his top 3-year-olds to Dubai – where the major races are now run over a synthetic surface – he kept them in North America with their original trainers.

One of those horses is Alpha, who is one solid performance away in Saturday’s $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct from returning Godolphin to the Kentucky Derby. Since finishing 11th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, Alpha is 2 for 2 as a 3-year-old with wins in the Count Fleet and Withers Stakes, both against modest competition over Aqueduct’s inner track.

In Saturday’s Wood Memorial, Alpha will take on, among others, the undefeated Gemologist, while trying 1 1/8 miles for the first time.

“His next race will tell us where he fits in the pecking order for possible Kentucky Derby,” Simon Crisford, Godolphin’s racing manager, said last week in Dubai. “He needs to do a little bit more. Obviously, our best Kentucky Derby prospect in previous years was Street Cry, and he went wrong just before the race. He’s not Street Cry yet. We’ll see in his next test, we’ll learn a lot more about him.”

Crisford said that while Sheikh Mohammed still covets the Kentucky Derby, he is less concerned with where that potential winner comes from.

“There’s no ‘it has to be done from Dubai or England or America,’ it’s just a question where the right horse is and where he slots into the program and whether he’s up for it,” Crisford said. “Individual horses, we decided not to bring them to Dubai. We wanted them to have as easy a winter as possible in America.”

Crisford admitted that one contributing factor to leaving horses in America was the installation three years ago of the synthetic Tapeta surface at Dubai’s new Meydan Racetrack. At its previous facility, Nad al Sheba, a dirt surface was utilized.

“That was a contributory factor of course,” Crisford said. “Now, we’re not running on a sand surface, the races here – as far as America goes – are less relevant.”

On Jan. 7, in a span of an hour, Sheikh Mohammed won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct with Alpha and the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita with Out of Bounds. While Alpha, trained on the East Coast by Kiaran McLaughlin, would go on to the win the Grade 3 Withers on Feb. 3, Out of Bounds, trained in Southern California by Eoin Harty, would go to the sidelines with a fractured left front ankle.

“We thought he was going to be our best chance, really,” Crisford said of Out of Bounds. “His setback was very disappointing.”

Alpha, a son of Sheikh Mohammed’s 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini, was a debut winner at Saratoga and a runner-up to Union Rags in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont. The only time he disappointed was in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, where he acted up at the gate and was discovered to have bled in the race. Since adding Lasix he is 2 for 2.

Crisford said that the Kentucky Derby remains a “prize that is coveted of course,” but “you can’t say the Kentucky Derby is the prize any more than any other top 3-year-old race.”

McLaughlin isn’t sure that a Kentucky Derby victory would mean more to Sheikh Mohammed than running one-two in the Dubai World Cup, which he did last weekend with Monterosso and Capponi.

“It would be great, but it would be hard to outdo what he did,” McLaughlin said.