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Alpha, with jockey Ramon Dominguez aboard, left, and Golden Ticket, with jockey David Cohen, ran a dead heat to both win the Travers Stakes in August.
Alpha, with jockey Ramon Dominguez aboard, left, and Golden Ticket, with jockey David Cohen, ran a dead heat to both win the Travers Stakes in August.

Horse racing: Alpha and Golden Ticket at it again

The rivalry gets another chapter added to it when the pair duel in the Pennsylvania Derby, says Geoffrey Riddle.


Racing in America has been characterised this season by enthralling rivalries and the next instalment of the tussle between Godolphin's Alpha and Golden Ticket takes place late Saturday night when the pair duel in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing, near Philadelphia.

In England and Australia the racing landscapes have been dominated by, respectively, Frankel and Black Caviar.

But the match-up between Bodemeister and I'll Have Another, and the continued struggle between It's Tricky and Royal Delta, have kept US racing fans entertained.

Alpha and Golden Ticket could not be separated by any amount of pixels when the two produced a dead-heat in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course last month. Golden Ticket's trainer, Kenny McPeek, conceded afterward that he would have been sick had his charge lost, even though Golden Ticket was a barely considered outsider.

When the numbers went up to declare the winner, Golden Ticket's number went up first on the board followed by Alpha's, but despite thinking for a moment that he had won, McPeek was not downbeat when the dead-heat sign lit up.

"When the three went up on top of the six I thought we had won it," McPeek said. "When it was a dead-heat I thought it was hilarious. We have a place in the record books and maybe 100 years from now they will be still talking about it."

There was a sense of relief, also, at a shared victory for Kiaran McLaughlin, Alpha's trainer

The Godolphin handler knows what it feels like to come off second-best in driving finishes. Last season in the Alfred G Vanderbuilt at Saratoga, McLaughlin's Trappe Shot came second by the minimum distance to Sean Avery.

"It was the dirtiest nose to be beat by, in a Grade 1, too," McLaughlin said. "It feels great to share that with Kenny McPeek. It was disappointment at first, but when the dead-heat light came on then it was exciting. It's good for the business.

"It'll be fun to see us thrown against him again."

McPeek, 52, and McLaughlin, 51, grew up on the south side of the Kentucky city of Lexington. McLaughlin's hair has faded from red to brown, and McPeek's golden mane has receded. What remains in both is the same burning desire to win.

As McPeek remembers it, he was 10 when he first met McLaughlin.

"We met in passing at a football tryout," he said. "We had mutual friends and it was a great town to grow up in. I would say we are very good acquaintances rather than friends."

Eight go to post for the Group 2 contest, run over nine furlongs, with Ramon Dominguez and David Cohen reprising their roles in the saddle on Alpha and Golden Ticket, respectively.

Both horses are clearly in the frame for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November, and tonight's dirt event will provide a clear indication if both are up to the level set out by Bob Baffert's Game On Dude. Alpha was the favourite last time round as the son of Bernardini is closer to the finished article than is Golden Ticket, who was having his first outing after a layoff.

"We had no pressure at all last time," McPeek said. "This time we actually think we can beat him and it is a great grudge match to have. I think Golden Ticket will improve and if he does I think he will be pretty salty. He needed the last race and drank a bucket of water afterwards.

"I tried to watch Alpha close in Kentucky in the spring. Physically, he is a well-made horse, but he is not a horse that you look at and say 'Wow'.

"He is not imposing, he is an efficient horse, and Golden Ticket is similar in that he won't make your jaw drop if he walks in front of you.

"The sport needs rivalry, and hopefully it is not the only time we get to run against each other. I'm really excited."


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