Gemologist vs. Alpha: Who was best in the Wood Memorial?

May 2, 2012

Serious handicappers don’t always judge horses according to who has beaten whom. They watch films, scrutinize the way a race developed and try to judge who ran the best race, irrespective of the finishing positions. Sometimes they’ll decide that a loser was the best horse. And sometimes different handicappers will come up with very different conclusions.

The Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, the final prep race for Kentucky Derby contenders Gemologist and Alpha, was a race worthy of careful scrutiny: Video

As the field raced into the first turn, Alpha (No. 1, in blue silks) was caught in traffic on the rail and was squeezed back, losing a length or two. After he wound up losing to Gemologist by a neck, it was easy to draw the conclusion that the trouble had cost him the race.

But the most obvious instances of trouble are sometimes the most overrated. There is another way to look at Alpha’s trip: Though he was squeezed back, he wound up where he was going to be anyway, sitting in the middle of the pack behind the fast pacesetters. He had the advantage of saving ground most of the way while Gemologist (No. 6, white silks) was parked four-wide on the first turn and three-wide on the final turn.

By racing in the clear, however, Gemologist did get the jump on Alpha as he surged to the lead on the turn. Jockey Ramon Dominguez then angled Alpha off the rail as he came into the stretch; he had a fair chance to catch the leader, but Gemologist repulsed the challenge and was inching away from his rival in the final yards.

Gemologist and Alpha are talented, evenly matched colts, both capable of winning the Derby, but it would probably be a mistake for bettors to upgrade Alpha significantly on the basis of a troubled trip in the Wood.

Andrew Beyer has been The Washington Post’s horse racing columnist since 1978 and is considered one of the leading experts on the subject.
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