If there’s a horse for the course in this year’s Whitney Handicap, it’s Alpha.
If there’s a horse for the race, of course, it’s Fort Larned, who is 7-5 on the morning line for Saturday’s 86th running of one of Saratoga Race Course’s signature stakes.
The 2012 Whitney winner will be attempting to become just the fourth horse to win the Whitney more than once, and just the second to win it in back-to-back years since it was inaugurated in 1928.
It’s a strong field of seven rivals that Fort Larned will face, and although Alpha hasn’t won since he was in Saratoga last year, he’s the only horse who has figured out the main track, winning all three starts, including a dead heat with Golden Ticket in the Travers.
Fort Larned is the only other horse in the field with a win over the track.
Alpha hasn’t hit the board in five starts since the Travers, though.
“He’s in tough, but he belongs because he likes this track,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “What else are you going to do? The only thing is we talk about turf sometimes because he’s out of a Nijinsky mare, but we haven’t done it yet. So we’re still here, and he loves this track.”
The Whitney will be part of a live telecast on NBC from 5-6 p.m.
Before the Travers and Jim Dandy last year, Alpha also broke his maiden at Saratoga in 2011.
Besides Fort Larned’s 1-for-1, Mucho Macho Man, Ron the Greek, Csaba and Fast Falcon, who was third behind the Travers dead-heaters, are a combined 0-for-8, and Cross Traffic, the 5-2 second choice, and Successful Dan have never raced here.
That said, 10-1 Alpha is up against it, based on form since the Travers.
He finished the season 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, almost 45 lengths behind Fort Larned’s half-length victory over Mucho Macho Man.
Owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Maktoum’s Godolphin Racing, Alpha went to Dubai and was fifth in the Godolphin Mile after a Meydan prep, and in his one start since returning to the U.S., the typically gate-antsy Bernardini colt broke through before the start of the Suburban, reloaded and finished fourth behind Flat Out, Last Gunfighter and Fast Falcon.
Alpha will break from post No. 6 under Joel Rosario.
“I didn’t do a real great entry job putting him in with these type of horses,” McLaughlin said. “But he loves Saratoga, so we hope he rebounds and runs well here again. He’s doing great.
“He broke through the gate in his last race, so we’re happy he’s not in there too long. He’s funny. We’ll probably go with no handler again because he seems to get into a fight with the handler. We’ll talk to the gate crew. He’s good in there; we school him all the time. He just gets a little amped up on the day.”
Fort Larned has his own experience with gate mishaps.
His 2013 season started on a funky note when he dumped regular rider Brian Hernandez at the start of the Gulfstream Park Handicap, after which he was fifth in the Oaklawn Handicap leading up to a 6 1⁄4-length win over Golden Ticket in the Stephen Foster.
Trainer Ian Wilkes said he expects that there will plenty of early speed for Fort Larned to stalk, as he did last year, when Hernandez kept him within two or three lengths early.
He beat Ron the Greek by a length and a quarter.
“That’s why I’ve got Brian,”
Wilkes said. “He’s tactical; he can sit behind. Don’t forget, Mucho Macho Man is a fast horse, as well. All three speed horses drew on the inside here. It’ll be up to Brian. He can sit; that’s not a problem.
“It’s just important to get out of the gates and have a good, clean break. That’s probably the key to it all. I’ve learned not to worry about the post position. The horse has always taken care of me. I drew a little inside in the Classic in the four hole, and I came out of the two in the Stephen Foster. I just leave it up to him.”
Discovery is the only horse to win back-to-back Whitneys, and he actually won three, from 1934-36.
Kelso won three, in 1961, 1963 and 1965, and the New York-bred Commentator owns the distinction of the biggest gap between Whitney wins, in 2005 and 2008
The 4-year-old Cross Traffic is by far the most lightly raced in the field, with four starts, and will be trying to carry his terrific early speed longer than a mile for the first time.
“I’m happy that we drew outside Fort Larned, as I anticipate the two of us will be significant pace factors in the race,” trainer Todd Pletcher said.
Another could be Mucho Macho Man, but trainer Kathy Ritvo said she wasn’t thrilled with drawing the No. 2 post. He’ll be ridden by Hall of Famer Edgar Prado for the second time in a row.
“We have a lot of confidence in Edgar, and I think the horse will do his running,” Ritvo said. “He has some nice speed. He’s quick coming out of the gate. I think he has to get the best position that he can. We’ll see what happens.”
She wasn’t the only one who would have preferred a different spot in the starting gate.
Trainer Nick Zito was reminded of Fast Falcon’s post 11 in the Travers last year.
The late runner, who hasn’t won since he broke his maiden at Pimlico in May of last year, has the No. 8 for the Whitney, and will be ridden by Junior Alvarado.
“He’s a horse who comes from behind, so it’d be nice if he can save some ground,” Zito said. “Junior Alvarado is a terrific jockey and fits him well. We’ll just go from there. I’m hoping he’ll drop over a little bit, but it’d be nice if we were already there. The main thing is the horse is doing well and deserves a shot.”
Trainer Bill Mott was one of the few who was indifferent to the draw, since Ron the Greek likes to come from well back.
“I think we’re probably one of the easiest horses in the race to predict where we’re going to be,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to force any of the three speed horses in the race. Everyone knows where we’re going to be coming from. Hopefully Cross Traffic, Fort Larned, and Mucho Macho Man all go at it.”
Mott said he had considered running Flat Out in the Whitney, but he’s not quite ready, and will wait for the Woodward on Aug. 31.