'Alex' this year's Smarty Jones?

The son of Northern Afleet takes a record of 6-for-9, with two seconds, into the Derby. Could 'Alex' be this year's Smarty Jones?

Updated: May 4, 2005, 4:19 PM ET
By Ed McNamara | Special to ESPN.com

In the old days, it happened all the time. Future 3-year-old stars announced themselves early by dominating sprints as 2-year-olds. Then they just kept getting better as the races got longer, and when it was time for the classics, they lived up to their reputations and short odds.

The great Citation won 14 of his first 16 races before dominating the Derby on the way to a Triple Crown sweep. More than a year earlier, he won his debut at 4? furlongs. In 1972, the immortal Secretariat was 5-for-6 in sprints before he tried a mile.

Back then the thoroughbred was a hardier, more versatile breed, and as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer throwbacks. Most precocious sprinters fade when asked to go two turns. Late-maturing distance types plod behind the pack in 2-year-old sprints. Which is why Afleet Alex is such a refreshing change of pace, and many traditionalists will be rooting hard for him Saturday in the 131st Kentucky Derby.

Here's a horse that's been a standout since late last June, when he won his debut by 11? lengths. After another rout, he shipped to Saratoga and took the Grade II Sanford and the Grade I Hopeful, two of the most prestigious and tradition-rich sprints on the American racing calendar.

Nowadays, 2-year-olds who are 4-for-4 in late August rarely make any noise in the Triple Crown preps. Not this colt. Not only has Afleet Alex won from 5? furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, he'll be no worse than third betting choice in the Derby.

Tim Ritchey understands why there are still doubts about Afleet Alex, by far his biggest star in 30-plus years of training.

"It's probably because he's a $75,000 2-year-old in training purchase," Ritchey said last week. "He wasn't a million-dollar yearling and he started his first two races at Delaware Park. He's not trained by a Todd Pletcher or a D. Wayne Lukas or a Bob Baffert. He's not ridden by a John Velazquez. He's had to overcome a lot of things right from birth. And so far he's been up to the task."

Sentimentalists also will fall hard for Afleet Alex. "For the first 12 days of his life,'' Ritchey said, "he was basically kept alive by two little girls who bottle-fed him because his mother [Maggy Hawk] didn't have any milk."

Ritchey said he never doubted that Afleet Alex could go two turns, and that he was thinking about the Derby back in August.

"After the Sanford, when he ran as well as he did and set the stakes record [1:09 1/5] in a race a lot of elite horses have won, we kind of got some Derby fever," he said. "Then after the Hopeful, I knew we had a very nice horse, and it's just proceeded from there.

"I don't know where it ever came from that he was just a sprinter, but there's a lot of stamina in the bottom of his pedigree. You've got Hawaii, and you've got [dam sire] Hawkster, who I believe holds the record for a mile and a half on the grass.

"I bought him with the thought that he could go a distance of ground. It's just taken us a little longer to convince the public that he can, but I always thought he could."

The son of Northern Afleet takes a record of 6-for-9, with two seconds, into the Derby, and his only flop came March 19 at Oaklawn Park, when he ran sixth in the Rebel Stakes while suffering from a lung infection. He bounced back like a champ with an eight-length runaway in the Arkansas Derby, when he rocketed the final furlong in less than 12 seconds under regular rider Jeremy Rose. If he can come close to that effort, 1? miles will be no problem.

There are many parallels between Afleet Alex and last year's 3-year-old cult hero, Smarty Jones. Like Ritchey and Rose, trainer John Servis and rider Stewart Elliott had never competed in a Derby. Like Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones started at an out-of-the-way track in the Mid-Atlantic region, Philadelphia Park, and had an unfashionable pedigree. None of that kept him from getting within 70 yards of a Triple Crown.

Even after the Arkansas Derby, there was speculation that Rose might be replaced by a Derby veteran. He's only 26, and the pressure and craziness of the Derby atmosphere has unnerved dozens of older, more experienced riders. Having to come from off the pace in a field of 20 will put more heat on Rose and test his patience hard.

Two-time Derby winner Jerry Bailey, the most accomplished active jockey in the world, is a very cool, cerebral guy. Even he admits the circus on Derby Day is rough on the nerves.

"Well, it's huge," Bailey said. "You don't want to get overwhelmed by all of the surrounding activities. It's a hard race to ride, and you don't want the gravity of the situation to affect the way you're going to ride it. You don't want to panic, and you never know how any of these young guys are going to react until you get in the race.

"Last year was an example of a guy riding in his first Derby, Stewart Elliott. But here's a guy that was a seasoned veteran and rode it like he'd been there a hundred times. But you might have a slightly different situation this year in that these guys are much younger and haven't been around the block as much as Stewart has."

Servis and Ritchey are old friends, and they played golf together this spring in Arkansas, where Smarty Jones' Triple Crown bid also was launched. "John called me recently,'' Ritchey said. "He said he's on the Afleet Alex bandwagon and that he will be supporting us and cheering for our horse."

Any good karma left over from Smarty would be deeply appreciated.