As the connections of Alpha ponder their next step with their Kentucky Derby prospect, it is business as usual at Kiaran McLaughlin's barn at Palm Meadows Training Center.
While a decision between the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 31 and the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7 is pending, McLaughlin will train the three-year-old son of Bernardini as though he'll run in Gulfstream's signature race.
"He's here and his training schedule doesn't change," McLaughlin said. "It's just that he'll probably work the morning of the Florida Derby if he's going to New York instead of racing that day."
The Florida Derby would probably have been the more attractive option except for one not-so-small factor.
"Union Rags is a nose (charted as a head) from being undefeated. He's a serious horse," McLaughlin said.
"I don't like our chances of beating Union Rags. I don't like running in races that I don't think we can win. I have that much respect for Union Rags, but then again Hansen is waiting up there (in the Wood), so it's not going to be easy no matter where you go."
Alpha has been beaten twice by Union Rags. Beaten 5 1/4 lengths when runner-up in the Grade 1 Champagne, Alpha was fractious in the starting gate before finishing ninth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, won by Hansen by a head over Union Rags.
Alpha, who currently has $180,000 in graded stakes earnings, may well need to finish first, second or third in his next race to clinch a spot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. With news that El Padrino, the winner of the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, will likely to run in the Florida Derby, the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on April 1 has even become somewhat of a possibility for Alpha's next start.
"If El Padrino is going to the Florida Derby, the Louisiana Derby becomes a little bit easier," McLaughlin said. "I have to talk to Simon Crisford about all of this, because he's the racing manager."
Crisford, the longtime stable manager for Godolphin, will make the ultimate decision. Alpha has won twice at Aqueduct this winter before shipping back to Palm Meadows to train for his final Derby prep. After winning the ungraded Count Fleet, he closed from off the pace with a wide trip to take the Grade 3 Withers by 3 1/4 lengths.
"He wasn't beating Union Rags or racing against a Union Rags. We had a good spot up in New York and he ran well," McLaughlin said. "But he's doing everything asked of him. We're happy. We just want to stay this way and get to the gate May 5."
The Florida Derby does have two strong points in its favor compared to the Wood. It will give its participants five weeks to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, which McLaughlin prefers, and it will allow Ramon Dominguez to accept the return mount aboard Alpha. Should Alpha go to the Wood, he would lose Dominguez, who is committed to Hansen.
"We obviously like him. He's two-for-two on him. He's a great rider and he's coming here to ride him if we run," McLaughlin said. "If we don't run and we go to the Wood, we have Javier Castellano on a hold for the race."
Castellano is the regular rider of El Padrino, so McLaughlin isn't looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby as far as booking a jockey is concerned.
"You get the best available rider on the day. Ramon might have to ride Hansen in the Derby and Javier might have to ride El Padrino," McLaughlin said. "We'll get a Hall of Fame rider on May 5. He's very straightforward horse to ride; it's just that he has gate issues which are hopefully getting better."
Although collecting graded earnings will be important, McLaughlin is looking for Alpha's next race to provide the best possible preparation for the Derby.
"I'm just hoping that our best race is going to be on May 5, not on March 31 or April 7," he said. "At this time, we just hope we can get to May 5 healthy and sound, no matter how we get there."
Meanwhile, McLaughlin reported that Captivating Lass will run in the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks on the Florida Derby Day program. Captivating Lass finished third in the Grade 2 Davona Dale at Gulfstream on February 25, 3 3/4 lengths behind heavily favored runner-up Grace Hall, who was upset by a head by 64-1 longshot Yara.
"She's been doing very well. Grace Hall and the winner of the Davona Dale will be very tough, but we're happy to be third last time and hoping she'll continue to improve," McLaughlin said.