The last time Oaklawn fans saw Alternation he was closing late to get fifth in the 2011 Arkansas Derby, a race that he seemed destined to win early in the season after two impressive allowance race victories. Pin Oak Stud’s regally bred son of Distorted Humor, now four, returns to Oaklawn ready to redeem himself in Saturday’s $100,000 Essex Handicap where he was installed as the 2-1 morning line favorite and is the 118 lb. starting highweight.
Alternation, trained by Donnie Von Hemel, finally lived up to his potential with a late closing victory in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park in May. That performance was followed by two fourth-place finishes in both the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga and Super Derby at Louisiana Downs before finishing his sophomore campaign with a runner-up effort in the Oklahoma Derby last October at Remington Park. He has been training forwardly at Oaklawn since December in preparation for this race.
“He’s a horse who likes to train and fortunately with the weather we’ve been able to keep going straight through the whole time,” Von Hemel said. “He’s a big horse and I think he still has quite a bit of upside. Hopefully we can get it going right Saturday and see where it takes him.”
Alternation’s main competition figures to be the top three finishers from Oaklawn’s opening day feature, the Fifth Season Stakes - Color Me Blue, Twice the Appeal and It Happened Again. It Happened Again, the beaten favorite in the Fifth Season, was made the 5-2 second choice based on his troubled trip last time. He picks up leading rider Terry Thompson and the Steve Asmussen trainee favor is three for six at Oaklawn, including a win in the 2011 Razorback Handicap.
Twice the Appeal, the 2011 Sunland Derby winner, was making his first start in the Fifth Season since finishing 10th in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. He fell just a neck short of winning and figures to benefit from that race. Trainer Jeff Bonde has secured the services of 2009 Champion Apprentice Jockey Christian Santiago-Reyes, who comes in from California for the mount.
Color Me Blue, who has only finished out of the money once in his last ten starts, figures to get overlooked in the Essex despite his breakthrough win in the Fifth Season. Based on his current good form, trainer Brian Williamson has opted to keep his Illinois-bred son of Flatter in Hot Springs rather than return to his home state.
The complete field for the $100,000 Essex Handicap, in post-position order, with riders, weight and morning line odds: Alternation, Louis Quinonez, 2-1, 118; It Happened Again, Terry Thompson, 117, 5-2; Racing Bran, Channing Hill, 114, 6-1; Color Me Blue, Israel Ocampo, 116, 5-1; A Student, Cliff Berry, 111, 12-1; Ballyjamesduff, Ricardo Morales, 108; 30-1, and Twice the Appeal, Christian Santiago Reyes, 116, 3-1.
First race is 1:00 p.m. Saturday with the Essex carded as the eighth of nine live races.