Afleet Alex vs. Giacomo in Belmont 137
NEW YORK - The rematch replaces the Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes.
For the first time in four years, and for just the third time in nine years, no horse will attempt to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont and become racing's first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
The alternative is an appealing one, though: Derby winner Giacomo vs. Preakness winner Afleet Alex.
"They are the only two horses left standing," said trainer Nick Zito, who spoiled Smarty Jones' Triple shot with Birdstone last year. "It's great to have a rematch. It should be a lot of fun."
The last one came in 2001, when Preakness winner Point Given won over Derby winner Monarchos, who finished third. In fact, four of the last five Derby-Preakness winner matchups were won by the Preakness winner.
Nine other horses are entered in Saturday's Belmont, all with undistinguished resumes totaling one graded stakes win and a combined 16 victories from 54 starts. Afleet Alex is the 6-5 morning-line favorite, with Giacomo the second choice at 4-1.
Among the starters are three trained by Zito -- Andromeda's Hero, Indy Storm and Pinpoint. Zito is 0-for-8 in the Derby and Preakness, but he's hoping one of his second-stringers can pull an upset, just as Birdstone did at 36-1 odds.
"We've got a decent bench," Zito said, "and hopefully one of them can come up with a good play."
All eyes will be on the acrobatic Afleet Alex on what is expected to be a hot, hazy day with a chance of thunderstorms. By the way, Afleet Alex is 2-for-2 over sloppy tracks.
Coming off his remarkable victory in the Preakness, when he nearly fell to his knees after clipping heels with Scrappy T at the top of the stretch, Afleet Alex is running for more than racing glory.
The colt's owners, a bunch of Philadelphia-area pals, have been donating a share of Afleet Alex's earnings to pediatric cancer research. So much interest has been generated that about 30 racetracks and more than 1,000 other locations will operate Alex's Lemonade stands on Saturday.
"I feel privileged to be able to speak for this cause and raise money for it," Afleet Alex trainer Tim Ritchey said Friday. "It'll be a great horse race, but there's more to life than just horse racing ... and this is part of it."
With a win, Afleet Alex would join such greats as Native Dancer, Nashua and Damascus among a select group of Preakness-Belmont winners who just missed in the Derby. Afleet Alex was third, a length behind 50-1 Giacomo and 71-1 Closing Argument.
"You can't look back," Ritchey said.
Giacomo, meanwhile, appears refreshed after spending three weeks at his home base at Hollywood Park following his third-place finish in the Preakness. Trainer John Shirreffs wanted to be certain his gray son of Holy Bull was fit enough to complete the Triple Crown series.
The trainer, who rarely races outside California, seems to be more concerned with the rest of the field than Afleet Alex.
"The horse with fresh legs could pull off the upset," Shirreffs said. "I'm sure Tim Ritchey feels confident because his horse has campaigned so well. It's a thrill for us to get this opportunity to let Giacomo show himself ... There's always the fresh horse factor."
Post time is 6:33 p.m. EDT, five minutes earlier than originally scheduled.
Pace should determine the race. An extremely fast start sets the table for closers such as Giacomo and Andromeda's Hero, who was eighth in the Derby.
A modest pace, which seems more likely around the sweeping turns of Belmont's 1 1/2-mile track, should benefit Afleet Alex. The son of Northern Afleet should assume his stalking position just off the leaders before unleashing a finishing kick in the final quarter mile.
Long shots Pinpoint and A.P. Arrow and 6-1 third choice Reverberate are among those who could be out front when the starting gate opens.
Giacomo jockey Mike Smith, who used to ride regularly in New York, is looking for his first Belmont win in his 10th attempt. The Hall of Famer believes Giacomo can pull it off.
"He's got a lot of stamina, and when you ask him to go, 'Bam!"' Smith said. "He gives it to you every time and can stay. We'll just see how it works out Saturday."
Jeremy Rose is extremely confident aboard Afleet Alex, even though it's the 26-year-old rider's first Belmont.
"If we're within four or five lengths (of the lead) at the quarter pole," Rose said, "I don't think anyone in here can outkick me if he's relaxed at that point."
Afleet Alex is by far the most accomplished 3-year-old in the field. A bargain buy at $75,000 last year by the five Philadelphia friends who formed Cash Is King Stable, Alex has won seven of 11 starts and earned $2,165,800.
By contrast, 12-1 shot Chekhov was purchased for $3.3 million Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith and has one win in five starts. The colt was fourth as the 3-2 favorite in the Peter Pan Stakes.
While the Belmont looks like a two-horse race, four of the past six winners have been long shots. Birdstone returned $74 for a $2 bet, Sarava paid a record $174.50 in 2002, Commendable paid $39.60 in 2000 and Lemon Drop Kid returned $61.50 in 1999.
"You have to remember," Zito said, "the Triple Crown wears on them."
Watch the Belmont Stakes on NBC this Saturday at 5 p.m. ET
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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