SARATOGA SPRINGS, August 31, 2013--Finally, Alpha put his whole game together which, of course, is not the kindest words one can have for a horse that was talented enough to share the Travers trophy in 2012.

But that was the kind of four-year-old season it’s been for the son of Bernardini who until today had failed to hit the board in four starts as a 4-year-old. Now that he’s back in Saratoga, however, we would see the good Alpha, not the 2013 imposter.

He was expected to be a strong factor in the Whitney but that never happened. Wide on both turns he was flat, never showed any of the talented that’s enabled him to bankroll $1.3 million coming into today’s Woodward.

Alpha has always had gate issues which forced trainer Kiaran McLaughlin to try whatever might work. The thought was let’s get him back to Saratoga where he never had been beaten—until the Whitney. Clearly it was time to shake things up.

Blinkers, which failed to help him in the Godolphin Mile in Dubai in late March, went back on for this race. The gear picked him right up and he breezed a half mile in 47 2/5, faster than 53 members of his peer group to work earlier in the week.

McLaughlin, who is 33 percent effective with runners making their third starts off a layup, played this one beautifully, as did jockey Johnny Velazquez, his Woodward partner.

“Maybe he wasn’t as fit as I thought he was the last two races,” McLaughlin said. “We had him dead-ready and fit today. Johnny did a great job breaking well because he has had his gate issues.”

“Once we got to the first turn where I wanted to be, he sat in the four path,” Velazquez said of his trip. “We waited until the quarter-pole when the other horse came to me. Once [Flat Out] didn’t pass me…I knew my horse was going to put up a good fight.”

“I think the start was a big, big difference,” added McLaughlin. “I talked to John and said if he breaks well and you can clear Paynter [the awkward breaking favorite], let’s go…He did a great job, Johnny did.

It worked [last year] in the Jim Dandy. And it worked again, over the same distance, over a similarly sloppy Saratoga oval. “[Alpha] loves it here. It’s one of the biggest wins in our career.”

And that goes for Alpha, and this time he didn’t have to share the prize with anyone.

What a Difference a Year Makes

On Friday, trainer David Jacobson experienced the lowest of racing’s lows when his 7-year-old New York-bred win machine, the local legend Saginaw seeking his 13th win in his last 14 starts and the status of equine millionaire, was euthanized after breaking both sesamoid bones in his left front leg.

Today, Jacobson watched as his Strapping Groom, which he also claimed for his account and that of Drawing Away Stable, held determinedly to withstand the distance and Saratoga-loving Jackson Bend after first racing odds-on favorite Fast Bullet into defeat to win the Grade 1 Forego Stakes.

Following Jacobson’s $35,000 claim on May 24, the Johannesburg six-year-old won both the Lion Cavern and Kid Russell overnight stakes prior to winning the biggest race of his 22 race career and improving his across-the-board record to 8-5-1.

“When you claim a horse, you always have high expectations,” Jacobson said via cell phone. “I always liked him going back to when he was laid up. Carl Domino did an outstanding job bringing him back and he was in great shape when I claimed him.

“Back then, I told my assistant that I thought he was fast enough to win a graded stakes. Frank reminded me of that ten minutes ago.”

Claiming barns expect to find the competition formidable when they ship to Saratoga. Jacobson, a claiming titan downstate, was expected to have a slow meeting but the victory by Strapping Groom was his second of the day, his 16th of the meet, good enough for third in the trainer’s standings behind Chad Brown’s 22.

Neither is within hailing distance of Todd Pletcher who, when the meet ends after the 10th race on Labor Day, will have won his 10th Saratoga training title, a modern-day record named for the legendary Allen Jerkens.

Fresh Is As Fresh Does

It probably was unreasonable to expect that the excellent weather that has prevailed throughout this history marking Saratoga season would continue.

And, so, early Saturday morning, the weather gods landed a body blow to the racing gods and the surface as a sea of slop as the early arrivals made their way into the building late on Woodward morning.

The only beneficiary from all of this seemed to be a turf course that was spewing forth clouds of dust throughout the week but played very well when the Bernard Baruch horses completed their appointed rounds.

No dust, and neither was there much evidence of those sizable chunks of green earth that get hurled around when the turf course comes up “yielding” as it did for the Grade 2 mile and a sixteenth.

And that was just fine for all the contestants, especially Silver Max, who had a very busy 3-year-old year in 2012, having run eight races in top company by mid-August. His 2013 schedule has been reduced by two, including today’s August-ending event.

As the racetrackers say, he went to the front and improved his position: “It’s no secret what his strategy is,” said jockey Robby Albarado. “He just pops right out of there and goes right to the front.

“He gets on his streaks,” the rider continued, “and I think his last couple he’s been back to himself.”

“Last year, I might have overdone it with him” said trainer Dale Romans. “I ran him a lot of times in those three-year-old races. He’s coming into fall a lot [fresher], and I think by the end of the year he could be one of the best turf horses around.”