Profiles In Courage – Alpha Ultimo

January 21, 2018

As we continue through the 2018 season at HorseRacingPark, one must reflect on the changes that have been made to the game many of us knew and loved from the very beginning. From race engines to breeding levels to the lack of disparity between the best and the worst, there are so many things to discuss and debate and every once in a while, it is worthwhile to focus on the more positive things. Heading into the KYD and the TC series, we will be doing profiles of some of the best horses to have raced at HRP in a series being called “Profiles in Courage”. Fillies, mares, colts, geldings; all will be profiled and to start, I will be re-publishing an article written back in 2010 on the great Alpha Ultimo (with some updates) including an interview with prominent owner Jerry Garcia Racing. From there, the list will grow and expand to include some unsung heroes, top champions and even a surprise or two. Hope you all enjoy!

Triple T Racing 🙂

April 14, 2010

In an age of horse racing where the length of any given career is determined by how much money can be made in the breeding shed, there are those horses that come along once in a lifetime and show you that the age of a horse means nothing if the talent is there. We called them geldings. Horses like John Henry, Funny Cide and Evening Attire have proven time and time again that just because you do not have the ability to reproduce in the breeding shed does not mean you do not have the ability to produce on the race track and this feature celebrates the amazing career of one of the true watershed horses at HorseRacingPark. One that will forever be remembered as the one who brought together a community to watch greatness and has become the benchmark against whom all other horses will be gauged. Here, we pay tribute to Alpha Ultimo.

His career is any much legendary as it is humble, for from simple beginnings would grow one of the greatest horses to ever grace the virtual track at HRP. A brief history of his life reveals:

66 lifetime starts

38 victories

12 second place finishes and 8 third place finishes

Career earnings of $11,091.320

Victories in 57.6% of his races

In The Money finishes in 86.4% of his races

Delve a little deeper and here are some interesting facts:

Highest earnings of any horse in history (2018 – 2nd)

2nd all-time in career wins with 38

Highest Graded Stakes earnings and wins of any horse in history (2018 – 2nd in Earnings)

17 Grade I victories

2003 Grade I BC Mile winner on turf

2005, 2006, 2008 Grade I BC Sprint winner on dirt

2005, 2006 Champion Sprinter

2008 Champion Male Sprinter

2006, 2008 Champion Older Male

2008 Horse Of The Year

With credentials like that, it is hard to think back to 2003 where it all began and chronicle the life of one of the best HRP has ever seen but thankfully, with the help of longtime owner Jerry Garcia Racing, we will take you back through the career of Alpha Ultimo and ask many of the questions that you want answered. How did he get so great? Was it as easy as it looked behind the scenes? And of course, what to make of his third-place finish in that highly publicized 2003 Jockey Club Gold Cup? Come inside and take a look back at the amazing career of the gutsy gelding, the old warhorse, the uncompromising, invincible, virtually unbeatable Alpha Ultimo.

July 6, 2003 began just like any other day for owner Oz Racing Inc. A minor claiming event at MNR, a five-horse field and the first lifetime start of a non-descript gelding who was facing a lowly field highlighted by a recent maiden winner and three also-rans in their career debuts. But for some reason, after a minor workout in 1:02 4/5, a couple of owners at HRP put $15.000 claims in for the three-year-old and in the end, Jerry Garcia Racing won the shake for the third-place finisher. So began the career of Alpha Ultimo.

First start out of the gate and you won the shake for him in the claiming box. Was it just the name of the game to claim at that point, or did you think he was something special right from the start?

It was REALLY early in the game. At that time there were a very small proportion of players in the game with any familiarity with horse racing past Digi and Raceclubs (where we all came from). I was aggressively claiming a lot of horses. It was very easy back then. AU came up at the free track on a Saturday night (if I remember properly). After my claim was already in, Oz –a kid at the time—posted to the forums that nobody should please claim him.

What you gonna do? I had no idea whether he would turn out good or no. He had some quicker first works. That is all it took.

Quickly transferred to the West Coast, he would win a maiden event at DMR over a field that included Grade I BC Classic winner Smokin before moving back to SAR where he would take an allowance event and the Grade II Fourstardave Handicap on the grass while setting new track records in both. A second place effort in a three-horse renewal of the Grade II DMR Derby would label him a turf star in the waiting and while the main track would be his chief source of income in later years, there was still money to be had for horses willing to run anywhere.

He won a minor allowance event at SAR called the Furiously by the length of the stretch and beat Grade II runners from midpack one start later. What made you move him to the turf for the early portions of his career?

As I recall he had some good early turf works. I actually gelded him sometime after the first couple of races. WTF was I thinking?

Less than three-months after his debut, Alpha Ultimo was one of five horses entered in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at BEL alongside Grade I winners Orpheus and Smokin, minor allowance winner Perfectly Clear and the unraced American Hero. In a race that to this day, goes down as one of the most talked about in HRP history, American Hero would go onto a twenty length victory in a world-record time of 1:56.58 while Alpha Ultimo would finish third for his efforts. Much has been made of the race since and the existence of American Hero; while it ended up providing fodder for the pundants of the new and emerging HRP, it was also the first of many Grade I starts for Alpha Ultimo and ended up being a catalyst for many things to come.

The 2003 Jockey Club Gold Cup has become somewhat of a legendary race after the unnatural performance of American Hero. Were you aware of what would happen and what was the response from HRP after it happened?

That was pretty bad. It pissed me off especially because it handed out a lot of ammunition to the HRP bashers who at that point made up maybe 50% of the players. It was a very black day for HRP. At the time their explanation involved some feature where a horse is at his/her best on a certain day—a one in a million shot sort of thing. That feature is supposed to be gone. Not sure what they were talking about. Losing was no big thing for AU, especially in hindsight, but the time of the race was absurd. That was my main issue with the deal.

After the Jockey Club Gold Cup, it was back to SA for a start in the Grade I BC Mile and as expected, he would prove the best from off-the-pace in another track-record win and would add the Grade I HOL Turf and the Grade III Native Diver to complete a first season with six wins and nearly $1,000.000 in earnings. Not bad for a $15.000 claim, huh?

GP was never very kind to Alpha Ultimo and 2004 got off a very slow start with three starts over the course and only a second-place finish to show for it and while the turf and dirt might have been his undoing, the distance was starting to point him towards shorter events and the Grade III Texas Mile at LS would prove to be a coming out party of sorts. A three-length win in that event would lead to a win in the Grade III Jaipur going seven-furlongs on the BEL turf; unfortunately, longer events to close out 2004 would prove to be too much and he would only be able to take a repeat win in the Grade III Native Diver in December before ending what turned out to be his worst season on the track.

2004 was an off-year for him given his future performances and in retrospect; it was mainly a season built around the turf. What made you move him to the dirt more permanently for the rest of the career?

It became evident in 2005 that he was a dirt sprinter. He had been all the time. His earlier success longer on the grass was a gift from the poorer competition. Many early stars in the game came to grief around this time. He was lucky to have a better career waiting for him. And he was still getting better.

2005 began much like 2004 with two on-the-board finishes in longer events and be then, the distance limitations were starting to show for Alpha Ultimo and his sprinting ability was starting to come through and an amazing victory in the Grade II San Carlos Handicap in what is still a track-record at seven-furlongs and a win two-races later in the Grade II Potrero BC Handicap in another track-record would prove his mettle as one of the best sprinters at HRP. A field of four would assemble for the ultimate one-mile test at BEL in the Grade I Metropolitan Handicap and facing multiple Grade I winner Omni in receipt of six-pounds, he would turn on the afterburners in the final quarter-mile to upend the field in track-record time and take his first Grade I win over the main track.

Logically, an extra furlong for a former winner at 1 ½ miles should have been no problem and his entry in the Grade I Whitney Handicap was to be expected. What was not expected was an absolutely dismal last-place finish by more than double-digits and for many owners at HRP at the time, that performance alone would have spelled the end of his career had he been a colt. But as a gelding, Jerry Garcia Racing knew that there was still plenty left in the career of Alpha Ultimo and that career did not include races over one-mile. That decision would prove to be the single most important as he would move forward to become the horse he is today.

A victory in the 2005 Met Mile was followed up by a dismal effort in the 2005 Whitney Handicap. Any reason why the efforts were so drastically different?

That was an eye opener. It really got me thinking that a mile was the absolute limit. And ironically THAT race made him inasmuch as he never ran past a mile after that.

Knowing that his Whitney disaster took little out of him, Alpha Ultimo was moved back to DMR for a pair of runner-up efforts over the main track and the turf before going back to BEL for a start in the Grade I Vosburgh to see if he really could sprint with the best of his division. Facing a field of eight, the then five-year-old would run the fastest six-furlong time in BEL history with a brilliant 1:07.36 and with the Grade I BC Sprint being held over the very same course and distance only weeks later, there was little to wonder where his next start would be. Sent off as the 7-2 favourite in the field of 13, he would come from the farthest outside stall to reward his backers with a championship effort in an impressive 1:07.76 and in the process, earn his first year-end accolade at Champion Sprinter. What was no expected was a follow-up season that would rival the best any sprinter has every had at HRP.

The turf had always been good to Alpha Ultimo and his six-year-old season got off to a solid start with an allowance win down the SA hill and a top-class win going one-mile in the Grade I Kilroe Mile and with move back to the East Coast for another pair of Grade I starts, there was expectations there for him to add his totals in the Grade I Carter and a repeat win in the Grade I Met Mile. But he failed to get up in the last jumps of the Carter and ran to the lead in the Met Mile before getting caught and while those runner-up efforts were good, they were not the type of performance one wants to see from a champion in the midst of his season. But the move to CRC for the Grade II Smile Sprint Handicap would signal the second-time Alpha Ultimo would be associated with an abnormally good performance and this time, he would be the one giving it. His win in the Smile would come with a price as his final time of 1:06.96 was a new track-record by more than four-seconds and many wondered how a six-year-old gelding could run such an incredible time for the distance; undeterred, the champ would go to DMR to take the Grade II Obrien BC Handicap, to WO for a victory in the Grade I WO Mile and back to BEL for a repeat in the Grade I Vosburgh. With a championship on the line, the favourite for the Grade I BC Sprint got a middle post to work with and completely dominated with a seven-length win and a mammoth 110-speed rating that would lead to more year-end wins as both Champion Sprinter and Champion Older Male. Seven wins from nine starts and more than $2800.000 in seasonal earnings would make him the highest earner in HRP history and ironically, the best of his career was still to come. Again, pretty good for a $15.000 claim, huh?

Mapped out with a similar campaign for 2007, things started off exactly as planned with an allowance win at SA and a triumph in the Grade II General George BC Handicap at LRL and he was able to do one better than his 2006 season at BEL with another runner-up finish in the Carter but a second victory in the Grade I Metropolitan Handicap over a five high-class older rivals. The Grade II Smile Sprint and the Grade II Obrien BC Handicap were like clockwork for the champion and while the Grade I WO Mile would be his first start of the grass since the 2006 edition, there was still a chance that he had some of the magic on the turf still in his veins. As automatic as his last two seasons had been, he simply did not have it at WO and wound up a poor seventh and that ended a remarkable spring of races at the very top of his game.

August 21, 2005 to August 19, 2007 saw the big gray finish first or second in 19 consecutive starts and take back-to-back BC Sprint victories. Was it just automatic or did you actually have to think about his training and development, and the placement and scheduling of his races?

It was automatic but the script was set. I resolved to cut the starts down and hit only the most important races. It was easier to do this with a sprinter because the big purses are fewer and further between. Handicap weights also imposed a little sanity, although I would happily give anybody weight and always did. I don’t think he ever ran at over 126.

As the rains started to fall on BC Weekend at MTH, the major question on the minds of everyone was whether Alpha Ultimo would be able to handle the extremely sloppy track; having only faced an off-track twice, he has finished second in both attempts and it was clear that Alpha Ultimo would need to put up a career-best effort in the Grade I BC Sprint to take a repeat victory.

Having never won over an off-track, did you ever consider scratching him from the 2007 BC Sprint when the main track at MTH came up so sloppy?

I was in Sicily the night the MTH BC race was run. Palermo. On vacation with my wife. On the corner there was a stand selling horse meat-I kid you not! I watched the BC at night on the public computer in the hotel. I may have scratched if I had had the chance. That MTH track was a disaster in the RL BC as well as in the HRP one. Fast track and he wins the race. No question.

As it turned out, the sloppy track was too much for the champion to overcome and he would come home a midpack seventh and despite an overwhelming win at LRL in the Grade I DeFrancis Memorial Dash, it would not be enough to take another Champion Sprinter title and he would return in 2008 in hopes of adding to his career totals and dare we say, a chance at $10000.000?

Three straight wins at LRL and BEL signaled the triumphant return of Alpha Ultimo as an eight-year-old including a first ever win in the Grade I Carter and having taken a win at CRC in the Grade II Smile Sprint Handicap before, it was all but a formality that the even-money choice would continue his good fortune in south Florida. But someone must have forgotten to tell near $5000.000 earner Ljosalfar as the fellow eight-year-old would take a three-length victory in an awe-inspiring time of 1:06.32 including an opening quarter-mile in an unheard of 20.26. Again undeterred, mild wins at EMD and WO on the turf would lead to a move back to his favourite track, SA, and a try at his third Grade I BC Sprint victory and over a fast main track, he did not disappoint in a six-length romp in a new track-record time of 1:07.59. Only second in the Grade I Cigar Mile to close out his season, it was still enough to give him Champion Male Sprinter and Champion Older Male honours as well as the most coveted prize of them all, Horse Of The Year. Still, having achieved everything that could possibly be there to achieve, one goal still stood tantalizingly close and for Jerry Garcia Racing, it was a question of what to do with a horse that was clearly passing his prime with each and every race.

Alpha Ultimo ended off 2008 a few dollars short of $10000.000 for his career. Did you ever consider retiring him or was that goal to get past that almost unachievable mark before ending his career?

He was on the downside, no question. AU use to be an automatic 1:09 trainer up. He was slipping to 1:10 and then to 1:11. 2009 was wait and see, and how far did he want to take me? He won races with some craft that year and looked good enough for the BC by late summer. So we took one last shot.

With the ultimate prize within his grasp, Jerry Garcia Racing and Alpha Ultimo would take their shot at $10,000.000 over the GP main track in the Grade II Richter Scale Handicap and after getting left at the gate, he rallied into third to push past the mark in very even fashion. But his SRF speed ratings were beginning to diminish and with wins going one-mile in his next two, another victory in the Grade I Met Mile was the mid-season goal and he was highly regarded to add another score to his incredible record. However, it was not meant to be as he could only rally for third and it would be the last time he would race at the distance with a cut back to his six-furlong specialty for the majority of his final events. Three straight off-the-pace Grade I wins going short including an incredible third win in the Grade I Vosburgh, four years after his first win in the race, would lead to a return to SA for a swan song and the chance of an unbelievable fourth win in the Grade I BC Sprint. But, as the even-money choice, he broke slowly and wound up a very even seventh in the full field of 14 and as many could see, the effects of being a nine-year-old were starting to show. No year-end honours, no championships, no glory. Tough to imagine for a reigning Horse Of The Year and one of the true superstars of the game.

Having been one of the most long standing and respected horses in HRP history, what has helped him stay at the top of his game for almost seven years, in an age where horses come and go so easily?

Lucky genes. Phenomenally lucky genes. I probably helped some by spacing things out later. AU started in the game when top horses were running 24+ times a year. The way he ended up running 8 times and holding it together certainly got players thinking differently. I don’t believe that fewer starts make a horse great, but too many starts make any horse less great.

The time has come for Alpha Ultimo to pass into racing legend. After his last race on January 9, 2010, he has steady been winding down on the farm and by the time you have read this article, he will be retired from racing for good with little left to achieve and even less left to prove. The accolades speak for themselves. The race record, the earnings, the Grade I wins, the championships, the respect. Few horses will ever match his records, on the track, off the track of in the hearts of his followers and ultimately, there is only one question left to be asked.

In your heart of hearts, will any horse ever achieve what Alpha Ultimo has achieved?

No. On the one had the advantage of starting when the competition was weaker and winning the BC before he probably should have normally. But on the other hand he got better and more dominant at his peak than any sprinter has ever been at HRP. Tough act to follow.

No truer words have ever been spoken. Alpha Ultimo is truly, one of a kind.

Congratulations Alpha Ultimo. And enjoy your retirement. You certainly deserve it.

Triple T Racing



Categories: FEATURED STORIES

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