For a moment, a small patch of bright blue cracked through an otherwise gray day.
It was the silks of Godolphin Racing worn by John Velazquez, untouched by mud while he rode Alpha in front of everybody.
Alpha nearly re-created last year’s Travers, keeping a sliver of daylight between himself and his closest rival this time to win the 60th running of the Grade I Woodward by a head over Flat Out before 20,068 at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
It was Alpha’s first win since he dead-heated with Golden Ticket in the Travers just over a year ago.
He did it with a front-running trip that actually mirrored his Jim Dandy win in 2012; Alpha came from off the pace to win the Travers.
“The stretch was more nerve-racking than the Travers, because we were there, trying to hold him [Flat Out] off,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “I told Johnny if he breaks well and can throw mud on the rest of them, please do.”
The field was reduced to five by the scratches of 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man, and the track was reduced to a mud pit by heavy overnight rain.
Alpha, the longest shot on the board at almost 8-1, benefitted from an alert break from the outside and a bad break by Paynter and Rafael Bejarano one stall to his inside.
The son of Bernardini led all the way around the track while shadowed by Paynter and Flat Out, ridden by Junior Alvarado, on the backstretch, and by just Flat Out in the homestretch.
Flat Out drifted a few paths toward the middle of the track, but continued to put pressure on Alpha all the way, finally settling for second.
“Once that horse didn’t pass me at the three-sixteenths pole, I knew my horse was going to put up a good fight,” Velazquez said. “When he came close to me again, my horse put on another gear close to the wire.
“The only thing he did was, when he saw the tire tracks where the gate was, he picked up his ears and slowed down a little too much for my comfort, but he still managed to put a head in front.”
“I was expecting Paynter to go with him, but Alpha made the lead easy and I had to start going after him a little bit at the three-eighths pole, and that was a long move for him,” Alvarado said.
The 2012 Haskell winner, Paynter was poised to be the feel-good story of the meet, having come back from the brink of death three times since last summer because of a variety of ailments.
Just to see him on the track racing again has been a tremendous boost for fans, but his Woodward was pretty much over as soon as it started.
He broke awkwardly, hitting the side of the gate and lunging into his first stride to fall into a stalking position behind Alpha.
He ran side-by-side with Flat Out a length or two behind Alpha down the backstretch, but dropped back and finished last, leaving only Flat Out as a serious threat to Alpha.
“He broke a little slow, but then I was in position,” Bejarano said. “He wasn’t too comfortable. I was out of horse by the half-mile pole.”
“We did talk about it in the paddock,” Velazquez said. “My Plan A was sit right off of him. I asked Kiaran, if I’m doing well enough, can I let him go? He said go ahead. If you want to squeeze him, squeeze him out of there. It just happened that when the doors opened, he was right on it.”
“The start was a big, big difference,” McLaughlin said. “I’ll take some of the blame. Maybe he wasn’t as fit as I thought he was the last two races. We had him dead ready and fit today, and Johnny did a great job breaking well, because he has had his gate issues. Paynter not breaking well and us breaking well was a big difference in the race.”
Alpha has won four of his five starts at Saratoga, and his purse money from those races account for 81.5% of his $1,772,500 in career earnings.
“I wish Saratoga was open a little longer for him, because he loves it here,” McLaughlin said. “Can they get the Breeders’ Cup here?”
“It’s a big race. I don’t know exactly what will happen now, but at least he’s proven that he wasn’t just a one-race wonder. We beat some very nice horses today. We’ll go from there.”
Bill Mott, who trains both Flat Out and Ron the Greek, who was fourth, said the pace scenario actually set up better for Ron the Greek, “ but the other horse made his run at the horse on the lead, and he did everything but catch him. I can’t complain. The horse gave a big effort, both horses.”