Angel in the stretch
Wednesday, June 8, 2005
Afleet Alex seemed to have the steadying touch of an 8-year-old cancer victim.
PHILADELPHIA -- Afleet Alex had a stumble in the Preakness that made hearts skip and fists tighten before he coolly regained his footing and won the race.
It was shocking to many, but not to Liz Scott, who was reminded of how her daughter Alex used to stumble while learning to walk, yet always caught herself and stayed determined to keep going.
Chuck Zacney, Afleet Alex's co-owner, told trainer Tim Ritchey before the Preakness that the horse needed the angels that day -- and then watched as the plucky colt was forced to his knees after a frightening collision and still won going away.
"There are certain things that are unexplainable and that was one of them, because 99 out of 100 times, something happens that's not very good," Zacney said. "She (little Alex) was looking out for us."
When Afleet Alex runs again in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, he's racing for more than just his second straight Triple Crown race victory. He's running to raise money for Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, which started with one simple front-yard stand run by Alexandra Scott, a little girl from Wynnewood, Pa., who raised money for cancer research one glass of lemonade at a time.
Scott was 8 when she died last August after fighting an aggressive form of childhood cancer almost since birth. Her story made national news and her legacy lives on thanks to Zacney and his horse, who have teamed with the Scotts to bring a greater awareness -- and increased donations -- to the lemonade stand.
"I thought it was a really good story and I wanted to be part of it," said Zacney, who donated money even before Afleet Alex turned pro.
Jay and Liz Scott never heard of Zacney or his horse and were surprised last fall when this stranger called them to offer a percentage of Afleet Alex's earnings from a top-three finish.
"Chuck told us the horse is pretty good. We just had no idea how good," said Jay Scott, Alex's father.
Of course it's silly to compare a horse enjoying its greatest success to a girl who died of cancer, but there were some similarities in the way they battled through adversity.
The horse had to be hand fed with a beer bottle of milk shortly after birth, and overcame a lung infection. His breeder has terminal cancer, and says the horse is helping him survive.
Alex, diagnosed shortly before her first birthday with neuroblastoma, an aggressive form of childhood cancer, was left paralyzed from the chest down after her first surgery. When doctors said Alex would never walk again, Jay Scott said his daughter worked to sit up without assistance and eventually walked without the aid of braces.
"They were very determined," Jay Scott said. "They showed lots of courage after a tough start."
But Alex still couldn't feel her legs, leaving her with an awkward gait. When Liz Scott saw the courageous colt avert tragedy in the Preakness, she told her husband how much it reminded her of Alex.
"It was a lot like how Alex used to run, how she'd lose it and keep going," Jay Scott said.
The Scotts will run the original stand Saturday, though it has outgrown the front lawn and will be located close to her former elementary school near their house. Donations have run from nickels to thousands of dollars for a single glass, including one for $20,000.
Jay Scott said the goal this weekend is raising $1 million from the nearly 1,000 stands around the country, from front lawns to ice cream shops to the racetrack.
"Our goal is to continue the foundation, and this has been a big boost for us," he said.
When Alex opened her stand, the Scotts expected to deliver a check for $10 to a local children's hospital. Instead, Alex brought in over $2,000. Last year, Alex's goal was to raise $1 million -- and the foundation recently topped $2 million in donations, Jay Scott said.
This year, rapper Bow Wow will perform at the original stand and Sixers president Billy King, on the foundation's board, also will be there. The Sixers renamed their Hometown Hero award in honor of Alex.
Jay Scott expects to go through "hundreds of gallons" of lemonade during the six hours the stand will be open Saturday.
Zacney said he's donated more than $100,000 to the foundation, and the Afleet Alex connection has probably brought another $100,000 in donations. All the horse's merchandising material bears a lemon logo representing the charity.
Scott, who quit his job as a book salesman to run the foundation, is still amazed at the letters and phone calls from people who have called to say thanks.
The foundation mostly has funded salaries for nurse practitioners and other workers at understaffed children's hospitals. The money also has funded research costs for young doctors just out of residency who are unable to gain government grants.
Of course, each interview forces the Scotts to relive some of the less-publicized agony their daughter experienced.
"It's tough, but the good that comes out of it is doing more good then it hurts us," Jay Scott said.
The Scotts are raising money through more than just lemonade. There are the Lance Armstrong-type wristbands, a children's book, Alex's Afternoon coffee blend and Country Time lemonade -- mixed by Alex in her kitchen before each careful pour -- made a lemonade kit that tells her story. The story has expanded overseas, also, with a reporter from Japan following the Scotts around this weekend.
About 30 racetracks are hosting lemonade stands this Saturday.
"It has touched lots and lots of lives, and it's something America seems to have gotten behind," Ritchey said. "I know the racing industry has."
That kind of support has made an impact on the Scott family in much the same way their daughter affected the lives of those around her.
"Everybody tries to leave a mark on the world. She didn't have long in this world, but she really left a mark," Jay Scott said. "It's amazing. Most people don't accomplish what she was able to do in eight years in their entire life."