LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The late Mack Miller often expressed the view that there was no place like Aiken to prepare a horse for the rigors of the race track.
It’s a tale well-known of how Miller rescued Sea Hero from the heat of south Florida, gave him a month and a few days in Aiken and sent him in full bloom to win a Kentucky Derby.
Once again there’s a close connection between Aiken and a colt in strong contention for the Run for the Roses.
Alpha, owned by the Maktoum family’s Godolphin Racing LLC, spent about six months on South Carolina soil where he was broken and began the lessons that would prepare him for racing.
Upon arrival in Aiken, Alpha, a bay colt by the brilliant Bernardini out of Munnaya, a daughter of Nijinsky II, came under the supervision of Tim Jones. And there can be no doubt that he was well placed.
“Tim Jones, he’s a great horseman,” Neal McLaughlin said behind Barn 42 on the Churchill Downs backside. “Like everything else he sends us, Alpha came well-schooled, accustomed to horses around him.
From when we first got him, he would do anything we asked. That reflects on who he came from.”
Neal McLaughlin serves as assistant to his brother, Kiaran, Alpha’s trainer.
An assistant trainer performs a job that requires much versatility, as the individual might be performing a groom’s job one hour and a trainer’s the next. It runs the spectrum of the work on the backstretch.
“Tim’s very talented, a real star,” McLaughlin said. “You know, he was assistant to Bill Mott when they had Cigar. That must have been a fantastic experience. And since he’s done what we’re doing, he knows exactly what we want. He’s been in our shoes.”
The McLaughlin camp is exhibiting quiet confidence as the Derby draws near. In a three-race juvenile
campaign, Alpha broke his maiden by six lengths at Saratoga and then was second to Union Rags in the Champagne. He then ran poorly in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after being unsettled in the gate.
As a 3-year-old, Alpha has registered easy victories in the Count Fleet and Withers Stakes before falling short by a neck to Gemologist in the Wood Memorial. The Godolphin colt experienced traffic difficulties on both turns in that event, perhaps enough to cost him the race. He worked very sharply on April 28, going five furlongs on the Belmont training track in 59.25 seconds and seems to be coming into the Derby just right.
Alpha will qualify as a longshot if the 15-1 morning line price holds. That does not concern the McLaughlin camp at all.
Their first Derby horse was Closing Argument seven years ago and he was sent to the post at odds of 71-1. In a remarkable effort, the colt held the lead inside the sixteenth pole only to be overtaken in the shadow of the wire by Giacomo.
“We have a happy, fresh horse,” said McLaughlin as he glanced across the grassy area behind Barn 42 at the much larger Derby co-favorite, Union Rags. “Maybe the winner Saturday will be a little Ferrari rather than a big Hummer.”
Closing Argument gave the McLaughlins a second in the Derby. Perhaps Alpha will give them a final judgment.