Alex one length away from Triple Crown
NEW YORK - On the morning after the Belmont Stakes, reality set in: Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex came within 8 feet of winning the Triple Crown.
Unlike the past three years, when the Belmont was the undoing of Triple Crown hopefuls Smarty Jones, Funny Cide and War Emblem, Afleet Alex was tripped up by the first race in the series, the Kentucky Derby.
After losing by a length -- about 8 feet -- to a pair of long shots, Afleet Alex won the Preakness by 4 3/4 lengths despite nearly falling, then bounced back with an overpowering seven-length victory in Saturday's final leg of the Triple Crown.
Moments after the Belmont, jockey Jeremy Rose was blaming himself for the Derby defeat. If it weren't for him, he said, Afleet Alex would be racing's first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
So what happened in the stretch at Churchill Downs, where Afleet Alex looked like a winner before losing in the final strides to Giacomo and Closing Argument?
"At the top of the lane, I was out of options," Rose said Sunday outside Afleet Alex's barn at Belmont Park. "I hit him right-handed, then left-handed. It was such a tough race his legs were getting weary."
So Rose went back to a right-handed whip, hoping Afleet Alex would respond.
"It was really a last-ditch opportunity," Rose said. "He drifted down to the rail, and the rail was dead that day. It may have cost us second, it may have cost us the win. I can't change it now."
Afleet Alex trainer Tim Ritchey blames no one.
"Jeremy rode a great race, and the horse ran a tremendous race" in the Derby, Ritchey said. "If it was meant to be, it would have happened. Obviously, it was meant to be that he won the Preakness because he could very easily have not won. I believe a lot in fate and destiny.
"He gave the horse an opportunity to win every race. He gave him absolutely magnificent rides."
Afleet Alex was chipper Sunday, Ritchey reported. He said he walked up to his colt's stall and said: "How ya doing, big boy? How ya doing, champ?"
And the response?
"His ears were up and he came right to the gate at the front of his stall to greet me," Ritchey said. "He ate all his feed last night, and he was digging into his breakfast."
While Afleet Alex fell short of a Triple Crown, he became the 11th thoroughbred to win the Preakness and Belmont after running in -- but not winning -- the Derby. Point Given in 2001 was the last to take the final two-thirds of the Triple Crown and he went on to win the Haskell Invitational and Travers before earning Horse of the Year honors.
Afleet Alex, a winner in eight of 12 starts for Cash Is King stable, is looking at a similar schedule. Ritchey said Afleet Alex most likely would be shipped to Monmouth Park near the Jersey Shore to prepare for the $1 million Haskell on Aug. 7. Remaining at Belmont or moving upstate to Saratoga also are possibilities.
After the Haskell, the next stop is set for the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 27, followed by the Breeders' Cup at Belmont on Oct. 29.
"If he's fine and healthy, the Haskell is the first target we have, and the second one is the Travers," Ritchey said. "He doesn't have to run in both. We'll see how it plays out."
Ritchey also said Afleet Alex definitely would run next year as a 4-year-old, and any deal involving breeding interests would include that guarantee.
"He's not going to be retired. He's going to run as a 4-year-old as long as he's healthy and sound," Ritchey said, adding the owners "100 percent agree to that."
Ritchey estimated Afleet Alex's worth to be as much as $25 million, and that was before the Belmont. So why keep running when other owners tend to cash out at the earliest opportunity?
"I think it's the thing to do," Ritchey said. "I think it will make the horse more valuable, and I think the owners are having the time of their lives. I know I am."
Added Chuck Zacney, one of the five Philadelphia-area owners who bought Afleet Alex for $75,000: "We never got into it for the money. And at the same time, we've become attached to Alex and so have many other people. I'd hate to see him end (his racing career) prematurely. ... He's part of the family now."
As for the Breeders' Cup, Ritchey said he was considering several options for Afleet Alex -- the Classic, which could match him against 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper -- the Turf or possibly the Sprint. Afleet Alex has never run on the turf, but Ritchey said the colt's pedigree indicates a liking for the grass.<
Ritchey said more than $1 million was raised Saturday for pediatric cancer research from Alex's lemonade stands at more than 30 racetracks and 1,000 other locations ... Reverberate, 10th in the 11-horse field, suffered a severely cut tongue. "I think he did it when he stumbled out of the gate," trainer Sal Russo said ... Trainer Nick Zito said Wood winner and beaten Kentucky Derby favorite Bellamy Road could return to training in 10 days to three weeks after the colt had his popped splint (bone) in his left leg treated recently.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press