After Alpha's victory in the Grade III Withers Stakes on Feb. 4, the next objective became a moving target.
From week to week, plans for Godolphin Racing's bay colt were assessed and reconsidered as the Grade I Wood Memorial, Grade I Florida Derby and Grade II Louisiana Derby were all deemed possible candidates to serve as his final Kentucky Derby prep.
Ultimately, the 11⁄8-mile Wood Memorial was chosen as Alpha's landing spot — a decision that was solidified after it was announced juvenile champion Hansen was headed to the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes instead.
Though Alpha's fate was partially based on the actions of others, his connections maintain all the hemming and hawing wasn't a lack of confidence in their colt, but rather the desire to look out for his long-term well being.
"The point was we were trying to find the right slot for him and ultimately we have the whole of his 3-year-old campaign to consider, not just his next race," said Simon Crisford, racing manager for Godolphin. "We want to build him into a program that will suit him best of all for the future over the next few months, not just for the first Saturday of May.
"But obviously if he does come through this test, he'll be there."
Whether Alpha's connections picked right will be determined Saturday when he faces seven other challengers, including 8-5 morning-line favorite Gemologist, in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
With Godolphin's Grade III winner Out of Bounds suffering a condylar fracture to his left front ankle in early March, Alpha stands as the lone Kentucky Derby hopeful for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's program, which is seeking it first victory in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Though he has some of the best classic breeding of any contenders on the Derby trail, the jury is still out on where Alpha's talent ranks.
As a juvenile, the son of Bernardini ran second behind Union Rags in the Grade I Champagne Stakes but then bled while finishing 11th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.
His two victories this season in the Count Fleet Stakes and Grade III Withers at Aqueduct have been visually impressive, finishing each run as if there was plenty in reserve.
With undefeated Gemologist as the only other graded stakes winner in the Wood Memorial field, the setting is right for Alpha — the 5-2 second choice — to prove he deserves to be among the well-regarded sophomores heading to Churchill Downs.
"He needs to do a little bit more," Crisford said. "Our best Kentucky Derby prospect in previous years was Street Cry and he (got hurt) right before the race. He's not Street Cry yet. But we'll see in his next test, we'll learn a lot more about him."
Jockey Ramon Dominguez suffered a separated collarbone in a spill at Aqueduct Racetrack on March 18 but expects to be in the saddle aboard Alpha on Saturday.
Though Dominguez is also the regular rider of Hansen, he wouldn't be dismayed if he emerges Saturday with a difficult choice to make in the coming weeks.
"I'm just thankful I'm also riding for two outfits that are very open-minded and understand the game," Dominguez said. "Alpha, he's got a strong beautiful stride, and when he settles down, he really feels that he can continue at that pace forever. I really feel that Alpha will go the distance without a problem."
Alpha will break from post No. 1 in the Wood Memorial while WinStar Farm's Gemologist leaves from post No. 6.
Gemologist, winner of the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November, coasted to a 7-length win in a 1-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park on March 16 but needs at a top two finish in the Wood to ensure he has enough graded stakes earnings to make the Kentucky Derby field.
"We're hoping for a strong performance and it goes without saying we'd love to win," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Gemologist. "The horse physically has blossomed and he's just been a pleasure to train all spring. We've just been really fortunate everything's gone according to plan to this point."