Quietly, one of the best performances on an excellent Saturday of racing took place in Oaklawn Park’s Essex Handicap. On paper the race looked like it would be Pin Oak Stable’s Alternation to lose. Although 2011 became largely a season of unfulfilled potential for the attractive son of Distorted Humor, he was able to count the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont in May among his victories. He also had two impressive allowance wins early last year at the track where he was hoping to ignite a run to the Kentucky Derby, but after a freak out in the Rebel starting gate, subsequent scratch, and a belated rally from too far back in the Arkansas Derby, a trip to Louisville was not in the cards. Despite being away from the races for the better part of four months, Alternation was able to exact a small measure of revenge for past disappointments at the Hot Springs oval, with a dominating score over a salty crew of older horses in the $100,000 event.
Made the 6-5 favorite by a local crowd that remembered how good he might be last year, Alternation was off a beat slow from his inside post position, but relaxed comfortably for rider Louis Quinonez and settled into fourth position early. With It Happened Again and Racing Bran setting a solid pace together in 46 1/5, the Donnie Von Hemel charge began to pick them up heading to the final turn. Once the field straightened out, he took command and only the rallying, recent winner of the Fifth Season Stakes, Color Me Blue, would have a chance from there. As the two rolled down the Oaklawn Park lane, it quickly became clear that Alternation had too much class for his competitor, winning off by an easy 3 ½ lengths, with Twice The Appeal a distant third. It was an impressive performance that pleased his connections.
“This was the kind of performance that makes you start dreaming a bit,” said winning trainer Von Hemel. “It’s a great start to the year for him, and I’d think we’d love to participate in the Oaklawn Handicap with him. You could just see the first time he started as a 2-year-old, going short, that he had all the talent that would come out as he got more ground. And he’s done that. We’ve had a few hiccups along the way.”
Victorious jockey Quinonez had this to say about the winner, “This is my favorite horse. I was dreaming of winning the Arkansas Derby with him last year, but it was to be. It’s great to have him back. He’s been training super and Donnie has done such a great job with him. I just let him run away from the gate and he started picking up horses on his own. I could feel the other horse (Color Me Blue) coming, but he just took off again.”
Yesterday’s victory marked the 5th out of 10 lifetime starts for the Kentucky homebred, and I see many more wins in his future. This is a colt that I made a special trip for last summer to the Arlington Park barns just to visit and get a closer look. I liked what I saw. Things did not pan out last year as I thought they might, but 2012 is a new year, and he looked great yesterday. Clearly much less accomplished to this point, but he reminds me a lot of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Blame in looks, running style, and hopefully talent. Obviously he has a long way to go before he can justifiably be compared to Blame, but I can see the potential.
Photo courtesy of Coady Photography/Oaklawn